Farm Mechanization in Ohio
Plowing lines for planting at author and conservationist Louis Bromfield's Malabar Farm, Richland County, Ohio, ca. 1940-1949.
Farm mechanization, the use of machines to till the soil and to harvest a crop, dramatically increased farm yields and reduced farmers' workloads beginning in the nineteenth century.
It was not until the 1830s that farm mechanization began to make an impact in Ohio. Before this point, most farmers, if they were fortunate, utilized a wooden plow with an iron point to prepare their fields for planting. The farmers performed the planting of the grain and corn by hand. If the farmer performed any weeding, he also carried this task out by hand. Generally, the farmers did not perform weeding, and the weeds by harvest time could be higher than the actual crop. Farmers usually carried out the harvesting with a sickle. With a sickle, a farmer could only harvest a single acre of grain per day.
New machines and technologies reduced farmers' physical labors during the late 1820s and the 1830s. Most of the new inventions dealt with harvesting. Ohio farmers began to use the cradle in the late 1820s. This device allowed farmers to harvest four acres of grain per day instead of just one with a sickle. Ohioan Obed Hussey patented a reaper in 1833, allowing farmers to use horses to help harvest grain for the first time. Cyrus McCormick patented his own version of the reaper shortly after Hussey. McCormick was a savvier businessman than Hussey was, and he quickly outsold his competitor, prompting Hussey to sell his business in 1858. McCormick produced his reapers for a brief time in Cincinnati, Ohio. These advances helped make Ohio the leading wheat producer by 1839 and the leading corn producer in the United States by 1849.
While mechanization began to influence farming during the 1830s, it did not play a major role in farm production until after the American Civil War. The principal reason for this was an abundant supply of laborers to assist in the fields. Families were quite large before the Civil War, providing parents with additional workers. Approximately 615,000 Americans died in the Civil War, creating a labor shortage after the conflict. Large numbers of farmers also began moving to the cities, hoping to earn better livings in the factories. Because of the declining availability of farm laborers, agriculturalists had to mechanize to continue to produce crops at levels similar to those before the Civil War. Following the Civil War, farmers benefited from steel plows, reapers, grain drills, and corn planters. Thanks to improvements to McCormick's reaper, three men could cut and bind twelve acres of grain in a single day by 1870. Thirty years before, it had taken a dozen men to complete this same task in a single day. Canals and the railroads provided farmers with quicker and easier access to their major markets, allowing Ohio's agriculturalists to sell their crops across the United States.
Despite the benefits of farm mechanization, there was at least one major drawback to using machinery, the cost. Most farm machines were extremely expensive. Many farmers purchased the equipment on credit or mortgaged their farms to acquire money to buy the machines. Oftentimes, due to being in debt, a bad harvest could cost farmers their land. Unhappiness with high machinery prices partly resulted in the formation of the Patrons of Husbandry and the People's Party.