Friday, April 23, 2010

Bygone Agricultural Machinery

At least three of us at lunch today had grown up on farms in the 1930's, 1940's and 1950's. We all personally experienced the change from animal powered agriculture to tractor powered machines. Dr. "Murf" Murphy was the senior member of our group who grew up in Kansas in 20's and 30's. He left the farm for college in 1932. At 95 he is still active as a plant breeding expert and as mentally sharp as a youngster. He recalled driving a brace of six horses to operate a 14 foot wide grain header. The crop was stacked to dry out and then was threshed with a steam engine powered thresher with a 40 inch intake throat.

My other lunch partner Dr. "Bill" Tomek is an economist who grew up on a farm in Nebraska. He too recalled the day of horses. He especially remembered how difficult it was to harness a team of horses when he was a youth. He left the farm to become a nationally acclaimed agricultural economist who still teaches a course at Cornell.

There were still horses on the farm I grew up on into the early 40's. We did have an old Fordson tractor with steel wheels in the late 30's and I well remember the first John Deere "B" tractor we bought about 1941. It was a great thrill to sit in front of my dad and steer the new tractor down the road when I was six. Our horses continued to be used pulling a riding cultivator and occasionally for plowing. I could almost manage driving the team and holding the walk behind plow when I was 10. The horses eventually died and we were then an all tractor farm operation by the mid 40's. In the mid 40's we still harvested wheat and oats with a McCormick binder. I learned to stack the sheaves of grain in the field and then to pitch the bundles onto a wagon to take to the barn. We later threshed the grain when the local thresher man brought his rig to our barn. He powered the thresher by belt power form an old steel wheeled Hart-Parr tractor.

Today's modern agriculture relies on a whole array of machines to enable the extraordinary productivity of our food supply industry. As a nation we are indeed fortunate to have a low cost food economy that requires a small percentage of our population to supply our needs. This has allowed the three of us to become academics and others in our society to pursue a plethora of other pursuits.

The agriculture sector success is a good model for many aspects of our national economy. Isn't it interesting that the Agriculture Committee of our Congress is writing the finance system regulations. Long ago the agriculture sector learned how to deal in commodity futures and the equivalent of derivatives. I guess we are not such rubes after all.

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