Sometimes Increased Productivity Isn’t Such a Good Thing

At the dawn of the 20th Century, America remained largely an agrarian nation.  In 1910, for example, the population of Georgia was still greater than California.  While the streets of urban areas struggled to cope with the noisy automobile, mechanization and swelling populations from immigration, agricultural production remained largely dependent upon manpower and horsepower. There were just over 92 million Americans in 1910, but 24 million horses and mules supplied the power behind farming operations.

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Until 1917 this was standard farm mechanization.

Onset of war in Europe brought new demands not only on American industry, but agriculture slso.  Between 1914 and 1918 the US exported over a million horses to the European theatre.  Mass quantites of food were exported to feed Europe’s population, as well as Allied Forces.  Along the same time Henry Ford set out to apply mass production to a functional tractor, supplanting the draft animal in agriculture.

Reliance on animals to supply the horsepower on the farm came with a drag on production.  Typically, 30% of cultivated land was set aside for hay and oats to feed horses and mules.  Often overlooked, however, is the benefit to local economies this system provided.  Draft animals were bred, bought and sold; Excess grains and hay had a local market; and manual labor needs held local employment opportunities.  Farm mechanization did not come without a high price for rural communities.

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Henry Ford (left) with son Edsel. Fordson began as a partnership of the two (Ford & Son).

Henry Ford, along with Ford’s son, Edsel, introduced the Fordson Tractor Model F into mass production in 1917.  Building on the success of Ford’s Model T the simplicity of the Fordson backed up by the existing marketing network of Ford dealers had an immediate impact on farmers throughout the United States. By mid-1918 6,000 Fordson Tractors were in use. In 1921 annual production reached over 36,000.  The 500,000th Fordson rolled off the assembly line in 1925.  The innovation of the Fordson was unlimited in Henry Ford’s mind.  Several applications of the tractor were envisioned, one of the most fantastic was a snowmobile, demonstrated by Henry Ford, himself.  So the farm economy was really booming, right?  Wrong.

In fact, the farm economy collapsed in 1921 and never fully recovered before the stock market crash in 1929.  When Edsel took over Ford in 1919, demand for farm products was at its pinnacle.  Farm land was high and corn hovered around $3 bushel.  European agriculture recovered quicker than thought and the increased productivity brought by mechanization quickly became a surplus.  Corn prices dropped to 15 cents per bushel.

Fordson Model F Given by Henry Ford to Luther Burbank for his use.

Fordson Model F Given by Henry Ford to Luther Burbank for his use.

Ford responded to the crash of 1921 by slashing prices.  The Fordson originally offered for $750 was lowered to $395 in 1922.  Large farm operations used the new mechanization to increase output and lower labor costs.  Smaller farms were squeezed out and farm labor markets dried up.  Remember that 30% set aside to grow fuel for draft animals? Now that land was put into production, increasing the agricultural oversupply and devastating local agrarian economies.  Instead of growing fuel, farmers were buying fuel from Standard Oil.  People began to migrate away from small communities to larger cities, hastening the transformation of the American economy from farming to industrialization. Agricultural productivity did increase by 26% during the 1920’s but at a very high price for many.  090810_26_NewspaperAdFarming was thus Built Ford Tough.

H/T to Miller County Museum and Historical Society for their great collection of Eads’ Ford pictoral history in Ibernia, Missouri.

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