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Fewer farmers produce more with less effort

By Pam Berenger, Dispatch/Argus Staff writer

The first soybean crop planted on a Rock Island County farm was made into hay.

Click here for larger view.
Pam Berenger / staff
Gib Hadley, 90, farmed in Henry County for several decades. When he started, farmers worked their land with horses, and hybrid seeds were unknown.
"They just didn't have a market for them," Taylor Ridge farmer Stewart Mueller said, recalling the stories passed along by his father.

It used to be a man could pick 100 bushels of corn by hand, and that was on a good day. It used to be a farmer needed five or six draft-type horses to pull farm equipment and a pair to pull the family's buggy.

It also used to be nearly everything needed was grown on the farm, with the exception of sugar, flour and cloth. It was those few things, along with a yearning for conversation, which prompted the farm family's Saturday night trip to town.

Click here for larger view.
Photo courtesy of Laura Thomas
A four-horse team was used to harvest wheat or oats on a farm near Sheffield in this photo from 1924. Tractors and self-propelled harvesters were not widely used until after World War II.
In many cases transportation made it inconvenient to make the trip more than once a week. Farming around the turn of the century was either manpower or horsepower, Mr. Mueller said.

"There were none of the modern conveniences," Mr. Mueller said. "People got along, just like they do now. Of course, it's just like a car. You get it and it's got all the goodies on it. You don't want to go back to one without it. Things have changed, whether it's for the better, well, that's debatable."

Kids learned how to shock oats. They learned to gather eggs, pick corn by hand, basically do whatever needed to be done. Most farms had at least one hired man, many had two, with the exception of harvest when several more were needed to get the corn in from the fields.

There are few who would disagree that any period of history saw as much change as the 20th century, especially in agriculture.

While tractors were being tested in the late 1800s, it wasn't until the 1920s that more than a few farmers had them. Up until then, horses were used to pull the plows and fields were planted and picked by hand.

"There was so much hand work," Henry County farmer Gilbert Hadley said. "The turn of the century was the beginning of a readjustment. Farmers still farmed with horses, transported their goods by horses and went to town by horse and buggy."

There may have been a few automobiles around at that time, there may have been some tractors, but neither "weren't very thick," according to Mr. Hadley.

At 90 years old, Mr. Hadley remembers those long ago days, when everyone in the family had a job to do and everything on the farm was there for a reason.

"The farm operation in those days was a family affair," Mr. Hadley said. "It was a self-sufficient operation with all the necessities raised right there on the farm."

The average farm had about a half dozen milk cows, horses, steers and hogs, chickens, an orchard and a garden, Mr. Hadley said.

"Everything was preserved for the winter and the rest of the year," he said.

All the canning was done on a wood stove. Youngsters on the farm learned to split wood at a very early age, after they had mastered the art of feeding the hens and gathering eggs. The older siblings did the field work.

Corn and wheat were the cash commodities at the turn of the century. Soybeans were virtually unheard of. Oats were grown for the livestock feed and to help establish the clover stand. Although some believe crop rotation is a new idea, a rotation of two years of corn and one each of oats and hay was common practice, the men said.

Crop rotation is still the order of the day. However, that is just about where the similarities between the time periods end.

In 1910 an average farm was 139 acres. The amount of corn planted depended on how many acres could be easily harvested in the short time farmers had to harvest the crop.

Today's farm is an average of 500 acres. Soybeans have become as popular a crop as corn, and farm acres are usually divided between corn and soybeans, with some pasture. Livestock is no longer found on every farm.

In 1910, the average corn yield was 27 bushels per acre with an average price of 52 cents a bushel. Today the average yield is around 134 bushels per acre and this year's price is hovering around $2 a bushel. Yields of 200 bushels or more per acre are common.

Farming has changed in the last 90 years, something Mr. Hadley said everyone should be grateful for.

Convenience is one thing. "People would have to be very hungry to go back that way," he said. The amount farmers can produce is another. It would be impossible for farmers to produce the amount of food needed to feed the world's population without the use of large tractors and the powerful combines that revolutionized harvests when they were introduced in the 1940s.

The internal combustion engine which powered the automobile, tractor and later the combine also contributed to the decline in the number of farmers. Fewer people were needed on the farm to maintain operation.

Today, instead of making up more than 30 percent of the population as the did then, now only about 2 percent of the U.S. population live on farms. While many farms have incorporated, 96 percent continue to be owned by sole proprietors, husbands and wives or partnerships. About 4 percent of the land is held by corporation.

"It's a changed world," Mr. Hadley said. "The advent of chemicals, hybrid seeds and farm machinery has been fabulous. It's been an exciting time."

Copyright 1999, Moline Dispatch Publishing Co.