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American Agriculture in the Period of 1865-1900

Between the Civil War and the turn of the twentieth century, agriculture underwent a revolutionary change. During this period of American history, foundations of modern, specialized, highly productive economic organization were laid; they were based on agricultural sector, its productivity and ability to support rapidly expanding population. In this paper, we are going to analyze how advances in technology, policy of the government and economic conditions of those times changed American agriculture during the period of 1865-1900. We will base our investigation on farmers’ responses to these changes and their general view of the situation in agricultural sector of those times.

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Economic conditions after the Civil War caused distress in the agriculture. The prices on agricultural products dropped, farmers were in debt and resorted to implementation of sharecropping: system, according to which farmer worked on a land for a share of crop, seed tools, and mule, had no income until the harvest time (Hurt, 2002). A significant shift of power from agrarian to commercial interests had been observed. Farmers were looking for opportunities to sell their products; they did their utmost to increase productivity, incomes and volumes of marketable products (Stewart, 2010). This can be proved by the data provided in document A, where a considerable fall in prices on wheat, corn, cotton and simultaneous increase of their production may be seen (“American agriculture in the period 1865-1900”).

Technological advancements of those times were another reason for change in agricultural sector. They particularly stipulated settling and farming of Great Plains and marked the decline of small farms and their replacement by bigger farms. Steel plow, barbed wire, steam tractors, deep-well drilling, and spring tooth harrow were only some of the technological novelties that helped to improve agricultural sector (Barron, 1987). After analyzing document D we can presuppose that there was a considerable need in large equipment and horses during wheat harvesting. The introduction of technological means on farms was expected to increase the production. In future it also stipulated the creation of commercial farming, because farmers invested in heavy machinery (“American agriculture in the period 1865-1900”).

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Expansion of railroad transport system also played an important role in agricultural change of 1865-1900. It connected farmers to the target markets, in this way helping them to conduct business. Railroads also provided an impetus for westward settlement. But there was also another side of the coin: price of transportation was rather high, and farmers rarely could cover their expenses (Linder & Zacharias, 1999). Railroads became more powerful than individual farmers and farm collectives; they bullied farmers and destroyed entire farming communities by freezing them out (Danhof, 1969). In document B, the new railroad system can be observed as well as its influence on cattle trails and farmers’ isolation. Document F also proves that railroads were helpful in transporting beef from the West to the East. In this way expansion of railroads changed cattle ranching and caused rapid industrial growth. But, according to the document C, farmers were still not satisfied with the railroads and, as a result, the law that limited freight rates was passed in Illinois (“American agriculture in the period 1865-1900”).

One of the most crucial government policy actions was passing of the Homestead Act, according to which a person could have been provided with 160 acres of undeveloped federal land west to Mississippi River at no cost. The Act required settlers to improve homestead for the period of 5 years (Herrick & Stuart, 2005). This “free soil policy” of Northerners who wanted individual farmers to own and operate their own farms was opposed to slave owners’ idea to use groups of slaves (Rosa, 2006). From document H, we can learn how difficult was it for the farmers who obeyed the Homestead Act to get good harvest. They came to the Great Plains searching for better agricultural opportunities but instead encountered a lot of hardships. They were starving to death, because hail had ruined their corn and potatoes harvest. According to the document G, during this time in history farmers were dissatisfied, because politicians lied to them: they asked them to raise big crops and, as a result, farmers suffered from overproduction and fall of prices. Such situation triggered the formation of Populist Party, which was fighting for the rights of the farmers (“American agriculture in the period 1865-1900”).

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To conclude with, in the period between 1865 and 1900, American agriculture changed in many aspects. This change had both positive and negative consequences. But one thing can be stated for sure – it provided a background for modern American agricultural system and marked a start of the new stage in its development.

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