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Mechanization of Farming in Minnesota

Primary Source Set
by Erica Younglove, Reference Librarian, Jefferson-Madison Regional Library (Charlottesville, Virginia)

Mechanization of farm equipment in Minnesota began in the mid-19th century, but took almost a century to fully expand throughout the state. Mechanization freed workers up for urban jobs and increased both profits and productivity of farms by allowing farmers to work more land more efficiently with fewer workers.

The first steps towards mechanization were to change from human powered farm activities to those driven by horses and other animals. This started to happen with the invention of horse-drawn plows, binders, and harvesters. The Civil War led to increased demands on farmers in Minnesota, which drove a desire for the increased efficiency that mechanization provides. In 1862 Congress established both the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and passed the first of several Homestead Acts. The Homestead Acts of 1862 and 1866 opened up more than 270 million acres of public land for farming and settlement.

By the early 1900s, steam powered equipment and tractors were made widely available which led to ever greater efficiency in farming. The developments in mechanization enabled agriculture to evolve from smaller, less financially viable farms to a larger, for-profit business model. It also allowed for greater diversification of crops which helped protect farms from crop failures or poor markets. The first three decades of the 20th century ushered in the "Golden Age" of agriculture in Minnesota and led to full mechanization of farms. Mechanization only continued to grow throughout the 20th century allowing for the rise of commercial farming. These corporations were able to farm on large scales, undercutting the profits of individual farmers, and by the end of the century driving many of them out of business altogether.

Discussion Questions & Activities

1. How did mechanization change agriculture in Minnesota?

2. What do you think the advantages of horse drawn/steam powered equipment were?  

3. Do you think mechanization of agriculture was a good thing? Why or why not? 

4. What new skills do you think farmers had to learn when they had to begin acquiring and managing mechanical farm equipment?

5. Many farmers had to add new technology slowly, while still supporting the animals and equipment they already had. Build a mock budget for pre-mechanization and after to see how the new costs affected farmers’ bottom lines. Take into account repairs, new farm structures for the equipment, but also larger farm acreage and higher crop yields. 

6. New technology would’ve required a lot of practice hours or training time to learn. How do you think farmers learned to use the new equipment? Where do you think they went to do so? Create a training program for farmers to prepare them for operating their new equipment. How long is the program? Is it in person?

7. You are responsible for keeping far-flung farmers informed of new equipment, prices, and other farming tips. Before the days of the internet, this meant a mailed newsletter or brochure. Design a newsletter or brochure to send to farmers. What information would you include? How would you find out which farmers to send it to? 

8. Imagine you’ve just added new equipment to your farm. Write a journal entry or letter to friend about why you decided to add the new equipment, what changes you made, how much they cost, and how they are helping/changing your farm.

eLibrary Minnesota Resources (for Minnesota residents)

1. "Combine." Britannica School, Encyclopædia Britannica, 26 Nov. 2014. Accessed 11 Jun. 2018.

2. Nall, Garry L. "American Agriculture: A Brief History." American Scientist, vol. 83, no. 6, 1995, p. 580+. Research in Context, Accessed 12 May 2018.

3. "Origins of agriculture." Britannica School, Encyclopædia Britannica, 10 Mar. 2017.  Accessed 11 Jun. 2018.

4. "Tractor." Britannica School, Encyclopædia Britannica, 6 Feb. 2015. Accessed 11 Jun. 2018.

Additional Resources for Research

1. "Agricultural Mechanization Timeline - Greatest Engineering Achievements Of The Twentieth Century". Greatachievements.Org, 2018, Accessed 14 June 2018.

2. Blegen, Theodore C. Minnesota. University Of Minnesota Press, 1975.

3. Kolnick, Jeff. "Land, Labor, the Market, and Politics." MNopedia, Minnesota Historical Society. (accessed June 14, 2018).

4. "USDA - National Agricultural Statistics Service - Publications - Trends In U.S. Agriculture - Mechanization". Nass.Usda.Gov, 2018, Accessed 14 June 2018.

Think Like a Historian

Observe a Primary Source Item and Record Your Thoughts

  • What is happening in the photograph or letter, diary, etc.? What just happened, or what is about to happen?
  • Describe the people you see in the image. How do they relate to each other and to the photographer? If there are no people in the image, what is the subject of the photograph?
  • Describe where the photo was taken. Were they inside, outside, somewhere identifiable? Was the location an urban area, suburban, or rural? 
  • Look for details that show when the photo was taken – time of day, season, and year. Do the people in the photograph look different than people today? How are their clothing, shoes, and hair styles different? Also look for differences in things like transportation, housing, equipment, and general infrastructure.

Think about the Creator, Audience, Context, Relationships

  • What is the author/creator's point of view? What was the author's purpose?
  • Who is the intended audience for this primary source material?
  • Explain how the source tells its story.
  • What was happening locally, regionally, or nationally when this primary source material was created?
  • How does this item relate to other content in this Primary Source Set and/or the rest of the Minnesota Digital Library collection? Compare and contrast two resources.

Finally, using the clues you have observed, try to figure out why the source was created. By asking these questions, you have begun to understand the what, who, where, when and why of the primary source material – and ultimately, the story it tells.

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