James Schneider  

Not Just Horsepower but Power without Horses

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For awhile, I've been vaguely aware of Norman Borlaug's importance without knowing very much about him. Recently, I've read a Borlaug biography called Our Daily Bread by Noel Vietmeyer. At this point in my life, I don't have the time to read three-volume biographies. Ideally, I look for a less exhaustive biography by a writer who still knows enough about the subject to fill a much longer work. Our Daily Bread fits this criteria; it was written after Vietmeyer had finished a three-volume series on Borlaug.

Borlaug's claim to fame is transforming the agriculture of the developing world through plant science. Borlaug was ideally situated to appreciate the power of technology to lift people up out of misery. He grew up in an America where harvest shortfalls could still cause hunger, and he saw his childhood family farm repeatedly transformed by technology: by hybrid corn, by fertilizer, by the tractor.

Like all kindergarten graduates, I knew that tractors provided additional horsepower, but I didn't realize how much of their value stems from the fact that tractors are not animals. First, work animals eat a lot of food. According to Our Daily Bread:

Like hybrid corn, this motorized marvel boosted food production beyond imagining. For one thing, the 75 million acres required to feed America's 21 million horses and mules were released to feed 45 million humans. Without breaking a single acre of virgin soil the tractor doubled production of the nation's basic staple.

Farm animals are high maintenance in another way:

...the greatest uplift was liberation from animal care. With no cows to coddle or horses to handle, they could pursue personal interests -- a trip to town, say, or a big-band concert across the county line. Nothing like that had been known in farm country before.

Norm sums up the feeling of freedom: Only those who experienced it can appreciate the blend of excitement and satisfaction in having your life's prospects made over. Farm families had seen their frontier expand but now, with no animals to care for, they could go out and explore it. Suddenly we could shape our own fate without the old restrictions. We could get an education; maybe even a profession.


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CATEGORIES: Economic History



COMMENTS (6 to date)
Gene H writes:

I found some interesting primary source data (Bureau of Labor 1930) on the change in the horse and mule population in the 1920's and estimates of land taken out of production of for animal feed and put into production for human needs.

The links are here for anyone interested in this "untold story" of productivity gains in in agriculture:

http://haywardeconblog.blogspot.com/2013/03/the-story-of-7-million-missing-horses.html

and here:

http://haywardeconblog.blogspot.com/2013/06/the-demise-of-horse-and-mule-era-and.html

Shane L writes:

Yes, how interesting. I remember being surprised and interested to learn about the importance of a food supply for horses in warfare too. When armies passed through lands with little fodder, horses starved.

LD Bottorff writes:

Using tractors, instead of animals, requires a relatively cheap source of fuel; petrochemicals. Those same petrochemicals provide much of the fertilizers that improve the crop yields. They also provide the fuel to transport the crops from farm to city or suburb. Our petrochemical based economy has allowed us to live much better lives.

There is a popular sentiment that we should be 'living simply so that others may simply live.' If 'living simply' means giving up tractors and petrochemicals, then I thin it is more likely that 'living simply' means that many will simply starve.

Pajser writes:

How many people died because people use plants to feed animals to get meat instead of directly feeding people? Is there any estimation?

Colin K writes:

@Pajser

If Americans all went vegetarian tomorrow, the demand for corn and soybeans would plummet. For a short time, the cost of those on world markets would drop dramatically.

However, within not too many years, we'd either start turning it all into ethanol, or farmers would simply go out of business and we'd grow a lot less grain. Either way, the cost for a calorie of plant matter would likely settle out to somewhere close to where it is today.

In the US and other first-world countries, we've come pretty close to slaying the starvation dragon primarily by raising the level of wealth to such an extent that we can provide every person with enough calories to not starve for a relatively tiny percentage of our GDP. Indeed, the greatest problem now is not lack of calories, but a surplus, particularly of grain-based ones.

JKB writes:

To get a good feel for the changes in the first 50 years of the 20th century, I recommend 'The Big Change' by Francis Lewis Allen. It's a survey history but really gives you a sense. Here's a passage describing the scene in 1900 America:


But horses were everywhere, pulling surreys, democrats, buggies, cabs, delivery wagons of every sort on Main Street, and pulling harvesters on the tractorless farms out in the countryside.

The sights and sounds and sensations of horse-and-carriage Iife were part of the universal American experience: he c!op-clop of horses' hoofs; the stiff jolting of an iron-tired carriage on a stony road; the grinding noise of he brake being applied to ease the horse on the downhill stretch; the necessity of holding one's breath when the horse sneezed; the sight of sand, carried up on the tires and wooden spokes of  carriage wheel, spilling off in little cascades as the wheel revolved; the look of a country road overgrown by grass, with three tracks in it instead of two, the middle one made by horses' hoofs; the special maIe ordeal of getting out of the carriage and walking up the steeper hills to lighten the load; and the more severe ordeal, for the unpracticed, of harnessing  horse which could recognize inexperience at one scornfui g!ance. During the Northern winter the jingle of sleigh bells was everywhere. On surmmer evenings, along the tree-lined streets of innumerable American towns, families sitting on their front porches would watch the fine carriages of the town as they drove pst for a proud evening's jaunt and the cognoscenti would wait eagerly for the glimpse of the banker's trotting pair or the sporting lawyer's 2:40 pacer. And one of the magnificent sights of urban life was that of the fire engine, pulled by three galloping horses, careening down a city street with its bell clanging.

One point made was the benefit of the truck, which made the transport of crops from the farms distant from the rail lines, but more fertile land, possible to the railheads and into the cities. This also freed up farmland around cities to more productive industrial uses.

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