History of Agriculture in America from 1785 to 1896

Page content

Agriculture, to put it simply, is farming. However, farming is a complex process of growing food to be consumed by humans. Conventional agriculture is what we see most often in the United States. It involves fertilizers, cultivation, altering the environment, pesticides and insecticides, and a lot of work and energy on the part of the farmer. The history of agriculture in America between 1785 and 2009 has greatly evolved. We have gone from more primitive practices to those using complex technologies.

1785 to 1793

In 1785, America saw the organization of several different agricultural groups, such as the Philadelphia Society for the Promotion of Agriculture. This society was formed by citizens, only a few involved in husbandry, but were of mind that it was very necessary. They also believed that this society would be beneficial to the interests of agriculture. They met regularly over the course of several years, published a variety of communications, and contributed various amounts and degrees of knowledge to how to improve agriculture. Their focus was the State of Pennsylvania.

In 1793, America saw the invention of the cotton gin. Invented by Eli Whitney, this machine allowed the separation of cottonseed from short-staple cotton fiber to be automated. This revolutionizing invention allowed as many as 50 pounds of cleaned cotton to be produced daily, which resulted in cotton production becoming a profitable venture in the southern United States. However, Whitney himself, did not profit from the cotton gin due to his patent not being upheld until 1807 in a court of law.

1800 to 1850

In 1802, the first agricultural fair was instituted in Arlington, Virginia by George Washington Parke Custis.

In 1810, the Agricultural Museum began publication. This was the first agricultural periodical in America.

In 1820, America saw the establishment of the Agriculture Committee of the United States House of Representatives. This committee, as defined by House rules, has oversight on some federal agencies and general jurisdiction over federal agriculture policy. It can also recommend funding for a variety of government programs, agencies, and activities. In 1825, the Agriculture Committee of the United States Senate was established.

In 1834, the McCormick Reaper was patented. Invented by Cyrus McCormick, this machine was able to do the work of five men. It cut the standing gran and then swept it on to a platform, using a revolving reel, and then a man walked alongside and raked off piles.

In 1840, commercial farming was encouraged through the growing use of agricultural machinery made in factories. It also resulted in farmers needing more cash.

During the 1850’s, commercial wheat and corn belts started to develop. The cheaper land that lay west of the areas where the corn was located, was occupied by wheat. During this time, the West Coast was growing alfalfa.

1860 to 1890

In 1862, the United States Department of Agriculture was established. This government agency is responsible for the execution and development of US federal government policy on food, agriculture, and farming.

During this same year, the passage of the Morrill Land Grant College Act occurred, furthering the drive for agricultural education. People willing to farm land were given free public land under the Homestead Act.

Between 1865 and 1870, the old slave plantation system was replaced by the sharecropping system in the south. This system involved a landowner letting a tenant use his or her land for a share of the tenant’s crops that he or she produced on the land.

In 1874, barbed wire became available. This allowed rangeland to be fenced. This ended the era of open-range, unrestricted grazing.

In 1887, the Hatch Experiment Station Act came into play. This allowed for the establishment of federal-state cooperation in the field of agricultural research.

In 1890, the Second Morrill Act occurred, resulting in a more broad land grant program. It also set up funding for land-grant schools for African Americans. During this same year, the first Federal Meat Inspection Act occurred, as well as the census showing an end to the frontier settlement era.

In 1896, Rural Free Delivery began. This meant that outlying country areas could now get free government delivery of mail.

For more history of agriculture in America between the years 1900 and 2009, continue on to the next page.

Here we will take a look at the history of agriculture in America from 1900 to present day.

1900 to 1920

Between 1900 and 1910, Tuskegee Institute’s director of agricultural research, George Washington Carver, pioneered finding new uses for soybeans, sweet potatoes, and peanuts. His work helped in the diversification of southern agriculture in America. In 1902, the Reclamation Act facilitated irrigation. During 1906, food safety saw a major landmark with the birth of the Food and Drug Safety Act. This Act put in place regulations and guidelines that must be followed to determine the safety and efficacy of drugs and the safety of the foods consumed by humans. In 1908, the Country Life Commission, established by President Roosevelt, focused attention on the problems in rural agriculture.

In 1914, a national extension service was passed to be set up through the passing of the Smith-Lever Extension Act.

In 1920, cooperatives were given legal standing by the Capper-Volstead Act.

1930 to 1950

From 1932 to 1936, dust-bowl and drought conditions developed. The southern Plains in the United States were most affected by the Dust Bowl. It lasted about a decade and devastated the affected areas, known as the Great Plains. It resulted in millions of dollars in damage.

In 1933, crop and marketing controls were initiated by the Agricultural Adjustment Act.

In 1936, farm programs were linked with conservation through the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act. During this same year, the quality of rural life saw great improvement through the Rural Electrification Act.

Starting in 1945, the agricultural industry was revolutionized by technology. These technologies resulted in more capital-intensive, specialized farms and greatly increased yields.

In 1946, the National School Lunch Act was passed. This Act, signed into federal law by President Harry S. Truman, was responsible for the development of the National School Lunch Program. This program allowed qualified students to receive free or low-cost lunches at school.

In 1947, tariffs between member nations were substantially reduced through working procedures established by the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

In 1954, agricultural exports and foreign aid were facilitated by the Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act. During this same year and into 1955, the rural development program began.

In 1956, the Soil Bank Program was authorized. This program paid farmers to retire their farm land from production for a 10 year period.

1960 to 1999

In 1964, the War on Poverty began and the Food Stamp Act was put into law. This Act allowed qualifying families to receive benefits that would allow them to get food to feed their families.

In 1970, the Environmental Quality Improvement Act was put into law. This amended the National Environmental Policy Act.

During the 1980s, crop and livestock products were viably improved through biotechnology. During 1985, government farm supports were lowered, exports promoted, and the Conservation Reserve Program set up with the Food Security Act.

1990 saw the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act and the Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act. Both of these increased the flexibility farmers have in planting under government programs.

In 1993, trade barriers were lowered with the North American Free Trade Agreement and the revised General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

During 1996, farm programs were revised to increase how much they relied on market signals. This was done through the Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act.

In 1998, the government implemented HACCP to reduce and target pathogen presence in poultry and meat.

In 1999, the demand for USDA farm programs was increased due to disastrous weather and commodity price drops throughout the United States. During this year, implementation of the Roadless Initiative occurred to secure fish and wildlife habitat, serve roadless tracts in National Forests, and protecting natural resources.

2001 to Present

In 2003, 19 projects were selected by the USDA and US DOE to receive $23 million for development and demonstration projects and biomass research.

The series of events that have comprised the history of agriculture in America have made a significant impact on food production and distribution in this country and will continue to do so for many years to come.


Landenberger, K. (2005). Tracing Crop Rotations Throughout Time: A Search for Sustainability. Retrieved on March 11, 2011 from St. Olaf College: https://www.stolaf.edu/depts/environmental-studies/courses/es-399%20home/es-399-05/Projects/Kari%27s%20Senior%20Research%20Project/history.htm

United States Department of Agriculture. (2011). A Condensed History of American Agriculture 1776 – 1999. Retrieved on March 11, 2011 from the United States Department of Agriculture: https://www.usda.gov/news/pubs/99arp/timeline.pdf