Combines and mechanized irrigation systems may not seem all that radical these days, but they weren't always around: the widespread availability of agricultural products in developed countries is a testament to the mechanical advances that have propelled agriculture into the 21st century, and freed up people's lives beyond the farm.
Ag Mechanization Over Time
As Purdue University notes, devices used in plowing and cultivation have been used in agriculture from earliest times. While these earlier animal-propelled implements improved over the centuries, it was not until the introduction of the cotton gin, patented in 1794, and the mechanized reaper in the 19th century that the industrialization of agriculture took off in earnest. The 20th century saw the disadvantages of the previous century's steam-powered tractors and threshers overcome with the debut of the gasoline engine, precipitating the development of gas-powered farm tractors and effectively marking the transition from horse- to machine-powered agriculture.
Efficiency Improvements and Problem-Solving
Increased use of tractors in American agriculture, from the hundreds used in the early 1900s to over 3 million in 1950, allowed farming to be conducted on an unprecedentedly large and increasingly efficient scale. Technical innovations in the tractor introduced automated cultivation and planting via the tricycle-style tractor, while rubber tires sped up production and treads subverted the problem of tires sticking in soft soil. Use of four-wheel drive and diesel power, along with electronically controlled tractor systems, brought new levels of tractor pulling power to the farming landscape, while driving down the need for human labor.
Labor Reduction and Cost Savings
According to the National Academies, the advent of mechanical advances in agriculture throughout the 20th century contributed to a 75 percent reduction in labor required to produce and harvest hay, corn and cereal grains. Specific developments, such as self-tying hay and straw balers, and spindle cotton picker of the 1940s, as well as the rotary and tine separator combines of the 1970s, were instrumental in reducing labor. Despite the variations in crop type and harvesting methodology, farming magazine Choices notes that mechanical harvesting can cut costs in cases where some damage to the fruit or vegetable is permitted.
Additional advantages of mechanization for certain delicate crops that traditionally rely on on hand-picking are that machines eliminate some of the disadvantages of human handling. As Choices notes, for example, the BEI Black Ice Harvester is a machine that creates a localized turbulent environment, loosening ripe berries from the bushes. The mechanized agitation does not require any human hands to touch the fruit, thus reducing food safety concerns, and the absence of any rotating mechanisms allows multiple passes on the same plant with minimal damage to the berries and bushes.
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