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The Evolution of Agriculture in the United States

Updated on June 30, 2012

Farming practices have changed significantly since the Pleistocene age of the hunter-gatherers. Currently, census experts claim that the world’s population will increase from six billion to nine billion by the year 2050—all to be fed, clothed and even fueled by agricultural products. To make the situation even more complex, people rising out of poverty will consequently develop higher living standards. For example, greater meat consumption and personal mobility will place even more demand on food crop production, animal feed, fiber, and fuels.

One of the biggest questions that politicians, scientists, and pressure groups from around the world have been struggling to answer for decades is: how can agriculture’s production expand so dramatically without significant increasing its environmental footprint?

This article will examine the evolution of agriculture in the United States and why the future of agriculture must be properly managed to promote long-term growth and natural resources conservation, while also providing farmers with the infrastructure, technology, and education necessary to successfully achieve their economic, social, and environmental goals.


The History of Agriculture in the US

Since the end of World War II, agriculture in the United States has changed drastically. Food crop production, animal feed, and fiber productivity significantly increased due to new technologies, mechanization, chemical usage, and government policies that favored maximum production. This important shift in farming practices had very few beneficial effects on American agriculture communities.

The most noteworthy of such were the decline of human-error risks involved with hazardous tasks and the increase of food production during wartime. Although this shift in agricultural practices had some positive effects on American farming communities, there were many major costs. Prominent among these were:

  • groundwater contamination
  • topsoil depletion
  • the decline of family farms
  • increased costs of production
  • decreased rights for workers
  • and the deterioration of socio-economic conditions in rural communities.

Furthermore, these social, economic, and environmental changes allowed for fewer farmers with reduced labor demands to produce the majority of the food and fiber in the United States.


The Rise of a New Agricultural Movement

The movement offers innovative and economically viable opportunities for growers, laborers, consumers, policymakers, and others in the food system. Today, this movement is called sustainable agriculture, and it is garnering increasing support and acceptance within mainstream agriculture. Sustainable agriculture refers to agricultural production that can be maintained without harming the environment. The concept integrates three main goals: environmental stewardship, farm profitability, and prosperous farming communities.

Farm Case Study

A case study at the University of Minnesota revealed that small farms with gross incomes of $100,000 or less made almost 95 percent of farm-related expenditures within their local communities.

Agriculutural Improvements Needed

  • The first things that need to improve are consideration of social responsibilities such as working and living conditions of laborers, the needs of rural communities, and consumer health and safety both in the present and the future.
  • Farm profitability, the process of preserving the economic viability of farm operations, is the second goal of sustainable agriculture. Traditionally, agriculture practices have exhausted the available resources and/or the ability to afford and acquire them, increasing financial, production, and energy costs. However, sustainable farms support local economies by providing jobs for members of the community and purchasing supplies from local businesses.
  • The third main objective of sustainable agriculture is to develop prosperous farming communities. Fundamentally, this goal is very different from most industrial farms. The bleak reality is that the primary aim of industrial farms is to maximize profits – even if it threatens the fair employment practices or health or of farm workers.


Sustainable Farmers

Sustainable farmers understand that healthy and fair employment practices can yield better food and a stronger community. Furthermore, these practices and policies help foster institutions that satisfy employment, educational, health, cultural, and spiritual needs.

Over the past two decades, there has been a swarm of technological developments in the field of genetic engineering technology. Many American companies have biologically enhanced their crops, and this has affected sustainable agriculture in a variety of ways. In the article, “Ten Reasons Why Biotechnology Will Be Important to the Developing World,” author Martina McGloughlin argues that “biotechnology is by default our best, and maybe, only, way to increase production to meet future food needs."


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    • farmloft profile image

      farmloft 5 years ago from Michigan

      Advances in biotechnology, engineering, oil, chemicals, equipment, etc., may put small farmers completely out of business (except for a niche farmer here and there) and then what's left will be large company farms or foreign investors buying up the farmland. Global thinking for farmers...

    • brittanytodd profile image

      Brittany Kennedy 5 years ago from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

      Thank you, everyone for your insightful comments!

      I think we need to have a blend of both technological advancement and sustainable agriculture. Even though the older ways were cleaner, they were much more time consuming and farmer's wages are low. I think we need to come up with a solution that can "sustain" our people as well as our land.

      Thanks for your comments! I really appreciate all of this forward-thinking.

    • cclitgirl profile image

      Cynthia Sageleaf 5 years ago from Western NC

      This is really informative! Of course, with the population rising, I think all sorts of issues will come to the forefront, not the least of which will be environmental stewardship. I also wonder about the use of pesticides. When oil production came into full swing, petroleum-based pesticides became widespread, too. Though I'm an organic gardener myself, I have to wonder what the agriculture industry will do when oil reserves are depleted. We humans are just so many...but we're also an innovative sort and I feel like we'll figure it out, somehow. Great food for thought, though. Thanks for sharing this. :)

    • mecheshier profile image

      mecheshier 5 years ago

      Fabulous Hub! Sustainability is the only answer. Our waters, land, food; everything is polluted with toxins or unstable genetics that are destroying all life. My passion in writing is about living green. Voted up for useful

    • profile image

      LikaMarie 5 years ago

      Well, this new GMO stuff is scary, especially with obesity on the rise. The farms of pre WWII people went out and worked, hard, and had a lot of hired hands. My great grandparents lived to be in their 90's. Even the ones who lived "in the city".

      I'm just not sure if the new modifications are going to create a healthy next generation. Hormones in our livestock get into the systems of our young people, and girls are hitting puberty at younger ages, while boys are "developing breasts". At the same time, because of the close living quarters, the livestock are fed a high amount of antibiotic, which is leading to more cases of MRSA....

      I think it's time that modern technology met old school practices, and became a cleaner line of living. And then of course, utilize the farm space available, rather than not growing anything on it.