Farming and mechanization in the 19th century

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sat Sep 13 12:24:50 MDT 2003

P. K. O'Brien, "Agriculture and the Industrial Revolution", The Economic
History Review, Feb., 1977:

Long after steam became the dominant form of power employed in
manufacturing, the major sources of energy available to farmers continued
to be men, animals, wind and water. Motive power per worker employed in
agriculture remained well below industrial levels until the age of
electricity and the internal combustion engine. Although machines such as
drills, reapers, and threshers became increasingly common as the nineteenth
century progressed, before the 1830s such machines continued to excite
comment as unusual aids in efficient farming. Improvements to implements
such as ploughs and scythes which occurred over the eighteenth century
hardly raised productivity per worker by the kind of magnitudes achieved by
machines operated by spinners, weavers, and metallurgists. Mechanization in
farming proceeded more slowly because agricultural operations are more
separated in time and space than industrial processes. Thus the spatial
dimension in farm work implies that machines must be mobile and travel to
crops. Furthermore the time lags in agriculture between preparation of the
soil, sowing, cultivation, and harvesting required specialized machinery,
which remains underutilized for much of the year. Only in agricultural
systems characterized by high opportunity cost for labour [ie, where
sharecropping and debt peonage did not apply, as the postbellum South] did
economic pressure to mechanize become similar to that experienced by some
sectors of industry during the eighteenth century. The agrarian problem of
that century was to extend the area cultivated and in raise yields per acre
rather than save labour per unit of output.

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