The distinction between agriculture and industry can be subtle in contemporary developed countries, particularly in the United States. While small family farms do still exist, the predominant share of the agricultural market belongs to large-scale operations that more closely resemble Fortune 500 corporations (and in many cases are, in fact, Fortune 500 companies). However, when you compare smaller-scale farming operations with modern factories, there can be a tremendous difference between agriculture and the manufacturing industry, for example. Both tend to create and support lifestyles that differ from each other – in some respects, quite substantially.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
The differences between agriculture and industry are less pronounced today than in decades and centuries past. However, agriculture is focused on the working of soil and other facilities to produce crops, animals and trees for human consumption or further refinement into products, while industry is focused more on refining and processing raw materials into products for sale.
Definition of Agriculture
Agriculture is the practice and science of cultivating the soil for growing crops of all kinds as well as breeding, rearing and selecting animals for the provision of food and other products. From the earliest days of recorded history and even before, humans have used farming, livestock management and hunting to fulfill basic survival needs, such as food, clothing and even shelter.
Raising livestock for food, drink and clothing (i.e., wool from sheep and other animals and leather from the skin of cows) is also part of the larger practice of agriculture. Fisheries that raise and harvest fish for food or for processing for other consumables are likewise part of the agricultural sector.
Another branch of the agricultural sector is forestry. This practice involves the management of forests in order to provide the lumber industry with wood as well as the production and processing of other materials. As with all forms of agriculture, the sustainability of the crop (in this case, trees) is a major area of concern for those involved in forestry.
Agriculture in all its forms accounts for the food that is required by every person on the planet and is thus considered by most to be the most crucial economic sector in the world. Around the globe, agriculture employs over 40 percent of all workers. Yet, oddly, on a worldwide basis, agriculture contributes very little to the combined gross domestic products of all nations.
Distinction Between Agriculture and Farming
To fully understand the distinction between agriculture and industry as well as the ways in which the two are increasingly similar, some draw a further distinction between farming and agriculture.
For those who view the differences between these two practices as more than simply a matter of degree, agriculture is a large-scale community effort involving a vast chain of stakeholders, including seed companies, food scientists, machinery manufacturers, mechanics, farming supply stores and of course the individuals directly employed in the agricultural operation. The products of agriculture extend far beyond food for human consumption and also encompass all kinds of livestock-related products and materials.
In this view, farming is distinguished from agriculture by both scale and focus. Farming is more individually practiced and managed. It is aimed primarily at human consumption in terms of both crops and animals. Each farmer may well manage his specific farm by a completely different set of philosophies, practices and methods than do his neighboring farmers. In this way, farming can be viewed as a mostly decentralized practice, whereas large-scale agricultural facilities are often owned and managed by larger corporations according to uniform policies and procedures.
Definition of Industry
Industry is the production of goods and related services within an economy. Manufacturing is the major driving force of industry, especially as it relates to the collection, processing and incorporation of raw materials into tangible products for sale. Today, those physical products are typically manufactured in large facilities known as factories.
However, other types of businesses also qualify as industries. For example, mining, construction, transportation, shipping and aerospace are all industries that have achieved a significant degree of economic importance at one point or another in the history of the United States as well as in other developed and developing countries.
The specific industries that dominate in a country or region’s economy depend heavily on the types and availability of raw materials as well as the necessary extraction costs. For example, a developing country with a large deposit of coal would be expected to have a thriving coal mining industry. However, if the costs of accessing the coal so that mining can take place are too high in comparison to the expected revenues that coal would bring in, then the mining industry would never achieve sufficient momentum to become a significant part of the economy.
History of Agriculture in the United States
As one of the longest-practiced human endeavors, agriculture is unparalleled in its history. The earliest archaeological signs of agricultural pursuits dates back 23,000 years to the Mediterranean basin. As humanity evolved and developed better tools and techniques for growing healthy crops, agriculture grew more sophisticated and widespread.
In the early days of the United States, farming and agriculture were the largest segment of the economy, with over 90 percent of all individuals employed in the field. Major crops included wheat, which has been the leading cereal crop in the U.S. since the 1700s, and cotton, especially in the Southern states. Citrus and corn have also evolved into leading crops.
As the country expanded rapidly to the west in the 19th century, room for new farmsteads grew dramatically. The number of farms increased likewise, from 1.4 million in the middle of the 19th century to an all-time high of almost 6.4 million in 1910.
From that point forward, throughout the 20th century the effects of the Industrial Revolution followed by the Great Depression in the 1930s began to drive farmers out of the fields and into other lines of work. The number of farms began to steadily decline.
Currently, approximately 925,000 individuals in the U.S. are employed in agriculture on approximately 2,048,000 farms. The average farm size has stayed roughly stable in the 21st century thus far. In 2007, the average farm size was approximately 418 acres. This grew only slightly to 444 acres in 2017, the year for which the most recent statistics are available.
Industry and the Industrial Revolution
Industries may be primary, secondary or tertiary. Primary industries, also called primary sectors of the economy, revolve around activities involving the collection or processing of raw materials. Examples of primary industries include copper mining, coal mining and timber harvesting and processing.
Secondary industries involve manufacturing processes that create a finished product out of raw materials, including those raw materials that are provided by primary industries. There are also tertiary industries; these concern the provision of services.
Industry definitely existed in Western societies prior to the Industrial Revolution, the period from the middle of the 18th century to roughly 1820 or so. However, during this period in which the economy was primarily agrarian in nature, most manufacturing was done at a much slower, more tedious pace in homes and personal workshops. Manufacturing machines and equipment largely did not yet exist, leaving artisans and workmen to fashion products by hand using simple tools.
During that transitional period of six or seven decades, industrial and manufacturing processes underwent a profound transition, creating greater yield capacities and more efficient manufacturing of goods. The textiles industry was one of the largest industries transformed by the Industrial Revolution and its more modern manufacturing techniques and machinery.
The process of modern industrialization was primarily driven by improvements in technology and a transition to equipment capable of mass production. This process opened up new markets for participating companies and drove further innovation in manufacturing, textiles, iron and other industries. As a result, other fields saw innovation and improvement. For example, developments in iron production led to improvements in the transportation industry, which likewise led to improvements in communications, banking and more.
However, industrialization also led to oppressive working and living conditions for many workers. These abuses eventually led to the rise of movements to improve working conditions, such as unionization and child labor laws.
The Industrialization of Agriculture
In recent decades, it’s become more difficult to distinguish agriculture from big industries. In fact, industrial agriculture is inarguably the largest food production industrial system in the U.S. as well as a major force in the American economy at large. Further, industrial agriculture is only growing in its reach and size on a worldwide scale.
Large corporations in the agricultural industry include seed and pesticide company Monsanto, Archer Daniels Midland and Deere & Company, which produces agricultural equipment and machinery.
This industrial-level control of agriculture expands beyond seed and crop enterprises and encompasses large-scale livestock operations. Known as confined animal feeding operations, some of these large-scale animal farms have engendered strong opposition from small independent farmers and neighbors to the properties used as confined animal feeding operations on the basis of competition suppression, noise and odor pollution.
However, industrial agricultural corporations are also responsible for innovative developments that have led to the ability to feed more people and transport both crops and animal products to areas in greater need of additional products for human consumption.
In 2017, some very large industrial agricultural companies sought to merge with each other, creating even larger mega-corporate entities in the agriculture industry. These mergers may open up new synergies between the companies involved as well as the possibility of innovative new products and processes that may help feed more people around the globe. However, some industry observers are concerned that the trend toward a few giant corporate brands in the agricultural industry may have the opposite effect by decreasing farmer and consumer choice. Mergers between major companies such as Bayer and Monsanto may likewise raise seed prices, causing hardship for smaller family farmers as well.
Agrarian or Agricultural Society vs. Industrial Society
In many ways, the differences between an agrarian or agricultural society and an industrial one reflect one of the most basic divisions – that is, two completely distinct and opposed worldviews. This distinction is reflected in the difference between agricultural economics and industrial economics, among other features.
The agrarian worldview is decentralized and focused on the individual, with a completely distinct set of values. Agrarian cultures tend to value the individual or family farmer over the compensated employee. For the most part, the wealth in such a society flows directly from the land and the labor that individual farmers put into that land.
To many, the industrial worldview is the exact opposite of the agrarian worldview in several respects. It is centralized, focused on the corporation (or group) and draws its wealth through manufacturing and other sources, not the land. Industrial society’s values are also viewed as contrary in many ways to the agrarian culture, valuing money over people.
Both viewpoints may be somewhat simplistic and unfair. Industry can help grow a country’s wealth, allowing its citizens a higher standard of living and the freedom to explore different interests. By the same token, agrarian societies can feel oppressive to individuals whose interests lie elsewhere, and the sheer amount of human effort required to merely break even can be overwhelming in years of bad weather and damaged crops.
- Investopedia: The Industry Handbook: The Agriculture Industry (COW, LSTK)
- Accokeek Foundation: Agrarian vs. Industrial
- Successful Farming: 10 Ag Mergers and Acquisitions From 2017
- Econleaks: Distinction Between Agriculture and Industry
- Statista: U.S. Agriculture – Statistics & Facts
- History: Industrial Revolution
- Fortune: Global 500
- ScienceDaily: First Evidence of Farming in Mideast 23,000 Years Ago
Annie Sisk is a freelance writer who lives in upstate New York. She holds a B.A. in Speech from Catawba College and a J.D. from USC. She has written extensively for publications and websites in the business, management and legal fields.