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The New International, February 1946


G.H. Fabius

Technological Progress in Agriculture

Notes on Recent Developments


From New International, Vol XII No. 4, April 1946, pp. 116–117.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


American radicals, in their concern with the political meaning of current events, must from now on pay more attention to what is happening in agriculture. If one invention, a successful cotton-picker, displaces several million farm laborers, tenants and marginal owners, a great effect will be felt in all American life. For example, a shift of one million Negroes and poor whites from the southwestern cotton plantations to the cities and to the north will bring into sharp focus such already serious problems such as these: unemployed seeking work and further instability of some labor markets with attacks on trade union security; intensification of strained racial relations; increased housing problems, with related social consequences in civil liberties, education, crime and so on.

Yet the cotton-picker is only one of many items in the current revolution in agriculture. The change has been under way for years, but many phases have been intensified during the war. The cumulative effects of the revolution are about to strike at the American economy with almost avalanche effect.

This is a summary of only a few of the major developments and trends, given with the object of stimulating some attention to the subject. Many books and magazine articles have appeared, covering various phases in detail and with full statistics. But radicals have not given study to the implications of the great changes in agriculture, and it is time for intent study.


For some fifteen years the Rust cotton picker has been well publicized. Its menace to the stability of our society has been discussed in journals of every sort. This machine is now perfected and has gone into production. At least two other such machines are also to be produced at once by large farm machine manufacturers.

This machine requires great acreage for efficient use. The small farm and the tenant farm and sharecropper will be swiftly wiped out. It is estimated that up to seven million persons – mainly tenants and laborers and their families – will be made surplus in the southwestern cotton country within three or four years. The size of the plantation, the cost of the machine, the possibility of immediate great profits are inducements to corporatism and a big business approach to cotton growing.

Most of the displaced will be Negroes and poor, uneducated whites in a region socially the most backward in the U.S.A. A small proportion of them have been organized with the greatest difficulty and idealism by the National Farm Labor Union (formerly called the Southern Tenant Farmers Union). But the majority will bring their poverty and ignorance with them when they migrate in search of jobs and homes. At the very least, those who go to the cities will form a fertile field for the activities of native fascists – a partial demonstration of this was given in Detroit and other war industry towns which attracted white Southerners on a large scale. They can provide a stock of strike-breakers in industry, especially if they arrive in large numbers in any cities.

Other technological advances are not as spectacular as the cotton picker, but cumulatively are a similar force. Here is a quotation from James G. Maddox of the Bureau of Agricultural Economics, Department of Agriculture:

... There is considerable evidence that agriculture is in the midst of a technical revolution which may continue for many years. Machinery is doing a larger share of farm work, and doing it more efficiently than men and mules ever could. The familiar tractor is by no means the whole story. The cotton picker, the hay dehydrator, the corn picker, the flame cultivator, and a long list of other weird-looking machines promise to change farming almost as drastically as the steam engine and electric motor changed industry.

Increased Production

New Varieties. Many new food products have been developed in recent years. We are about to experience even greater accomplishments. Russia, Canada and all other agricultural countries are the scenes of extended experimentation which has already brought starling results.

One extremely interesting program is that of the use of the drug colchicine. This drug brings about changes in cell structure, causing mutations in plant or fruit forms. Changes in size, speed growth, special qualities of flavor, texture or fiber are brought about. The mutations are usually total, that is, permanent new varieties are established and can be brought into commercial production.

Hybrid corns are another field of tremendously successful experimentation. Farmers buy hybrid seed appropriate to their own soils and districts and can get exactly the kind of corn they desire. In several states the change from old methods in the past ten years has been from 98 to 100 per cent. This was a field in which Henry Wallace pioneered and gained his foothold to national prominence. These new hybrid corns have expanded the use of corn in industry, provided better sources for cereals, animal foods and, of course, increased the supply available for the human market. One sidelight of importance is the control of the size of the stalk, resulting in easier handling by machinery. For example, the use of corn-harvesting machinery has increased; in 1925 it took 14 man-hours or more per acre, while in 1945 it took but six man-hours. It should be noted that use of expensive machinery is a vital factor in the trends in farm size and investment. The farmers’ cooperative is one solution farmers have tried when they cannot afford the great costs; the big business farms, or bank operated farms in some areas, are in conflict with cooperators. This is one key to the existence of several farm organizations with opposite political orientations.

Further citations of new varieties must include hay and grasses; sugar cane; beans for animal, human and industrial use; and wheat, where disease resistant types have received much attention.

Pest Control. The chemical DDT, a wartime product, is already well-known to the public. The question of its use with growing plants is still undetermined, because of some dangers. Destruction of insects on a large scale means upsetting nature’s balance for plant and fish life, and in plant pollenization. Its major use at present may be in insuring that a greater quantity of undamaged foods reaches the market.

The use of the airplane to dust cotton fields with pest-killing chemicals is familiar to those who attend the newsreels.

Animal Health. State and federal agricultural experiment stations have long served the alert farmer. A special contribution, which needs only brief mention, has been in the improvement of livestock. Steady gains have been made in conquering disease, improving breeds, and feeding for increased meat, milk and eggs.

Soil Management. Major expansion of agricultural production must be credited to the soil studies of the experiment stations. The farmer has been guided in regard to reclamation, use of fertilizers. planting programs, etc. Together with other activities mentioned, farmers with capital have been able to produce and market ever-increasing quantities. The Bureau of Agricultural Economics reports:

“In every year since 1939, the average yield of our 28 major crops. has been 20 per cent or more above the 1923–32 average.”

This in wartime, with a manpower shortage.

As yet only a relatively small proportion are able to take full advantage of the scientific knowledge available. Wilcox, a soils expert, claimed a few years ago that an area equal to the state of Colorado could feed the entire nation if just his own soils and fertilizing knowledge were applied.

A recent book, Plowman’s Folly, by Faulkner, offers an entirely new approach. Faulkner reports experiments which prove the plow, standard and basic for thousands of years, to be harmful. He has worked out a non-plowing method of planting crops, with enormous savings in labor and cultivating machinery, and has obtained several more crops per season, with plants resistant to disease and insects and of better quality. His approach is extremely revolutionary and contrary to all established ideas, but his experiments are being carefully repeated in many stations. If his views are even partially sound, and are adopted by keen men, truck farming will be revolutionized overnight.


Chemurgy is the name given to the use of plant products in industry. It is more properly discussed in the field of industrial change, but a few elements deserve examination.

One is the change-over in types of farming which may occur in some areas on a large scale if farmers find it more profitable to produce for industry. Some of the products involved are plastics, sugars, chemical and medicinal raw materials, starch, gums, textiles, etc. Many of the industries are starting from scratch and are contracting with farmers for the supplies.

Under war stimulus, invention and application in this field reached great proportions. The best patents are in the hands of big corporations. They are in a position to buy up large land areas, use hired labor instead of contractors, and establish their plants in low-wage or unorganized regions. If contracting is continued, the corporations have the opportunity to improve on the methods of the big canneries, which now often exploit the grower. If new industries are successful, there will be problems of employment in those competitive plants that become outmoded. There will be organizational problems for labor, especially jurisdictional ones.


Hydroponics is a system of growing a crop without the use of land. Plants are placed in beds or frames and the essential chemical needs are provided in a water solution in vats directly below. Advantages are the elimination of space, full control of heat, light and water, and the provision of exactly those plant foods required for the crop.

This method was an outstanding success in some of the Pacific islands, where it was otherwise impossible to obtain fresh produce for the armed forces. It is entirely possible to establish such a vegetable factory in a loft building or any large house, and to grow many crops the year around. The farm, long transportation, middlemen and all seasonal factors can be completely eliminated.

If undertaken by well financed groups, this process can make a real dent into present methods of trucking. It is a logical field for the entry of large chain stores, especially in collaboration with suppliers of chemicals, who have every cause to be interested. One of the big railroads has been using such products for several years in its diners. When the costs of growing and transporting vegetables from Texas, California or Florida to the Eastern market is considered, we have reason to anticipate much attention to hydroponics in the next few years.

Some Other Factors

Trends in general are of increased production with reduced manpower; of greater us of expensive machines which stimulate increased interest in agriculture by financial groups. The rural population will continue to decrease, so that even sixty million jobs would mean extensive unemployment.

Some attempt is being made to convince the farm supporters of the present system that highly paid industrial workers are an advantage to them. (See What’s Ahead for the Farmer in Harper’s, March 1945.) The National Farmers Union preaches unity with labor in terms of this common welfare.

As a whole, the American farmer has been well indoctrinated against ”socialism” by every agency of information. But he is not resistant to some ”socialistic” ideas that do not have the label. Because of his own needs, he has accepted the intervention of government in such matters as soil conservation, housing and electrification. The cooperative movement has grown tremendously, although too often presented as a panacea for all social and economic ills.

The soil conservation district should be mentioned. This program exists in 45 states and enables farmers to use the combined services of state and federal agencies to modernize. One farmer is reported to have increased his income in three years from an annual $5,000 to over $14,000. His costs were only $159. This was in Republican, free-enterprise Vermont, but the farmer is satisfied to accept collective action and government aid when it is to his profit.

The more successful the researchers, inventors and cooperators are, the greater becomes the profit of the wealthy who can take advantage of a new development. Coincidentally, the greater the menace to the little fellow without financial resources. The combined application of the discoveries means surpluses, lower prices, and bankruptcies. (Of course, the term surplus is here used in terms of the market, not the needs of the people of the world.) If there are sudden population shifts, or an industrial depression, the greater will be the farm crisis, despite the technical proof that this is the age of plenty.

On the basis of these observations, it is probably no exaggeration to state that calamity and revolution are being born in agriculture. It is time for some study of the kind of education and propaganda to be presented to farmers to convince them to join in making their potential plenty available to a world that needs it.

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