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Creating Abundance: Biological Innovation and American Agricultural Development

Author(s):Olmstead, Alan L.
Rhode, Paul W.
Reviewer(s):Craig, Lee A.

Published by EH.NET (May 2009)

Alan L. Olmstead and Paul W. Rhode, Creating Abundance: Biological Innovation and American Agricultural Development. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. xii + 467 pp. $24 (paperback), ISBN 978-0-521-67387-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Lee A. Craig, Department of Economics, North Carolina State University.

In the Preface to the first volume of his collected essays, Bill Parker wrote of the next generation of economic historians: ?The work of nearly all of them is in many respects proving better than mine … the independence and variety of students? thought is to me a great source of both annoyance and satisfaction, humiliation and pride.?[1] In their Creating Abundance, Alan Olmstead and Paul Rhode (a student of a Parker student) offer much that might have annoyed and humiliated Parker, but in the end the authors also would have brought him much satisfaction and filled him with pride.

According to Olmstead and Rhode, their volume ?portrays a far more dynamic and creative story of American agricultural development than that found in most accounts? (p. 16). Those are bold words. Let me rescue them from any charges of excessive self-promotion. What they should have said is: ?This volume portrays a far more dynamic and creative story of American agricultural development than that found in almost any other account.? (And I only say ?almost any other account,? because I cannot claim to have read every account.) The authors do nothing less than force their readers to completely reconsider the historiography of American agriculture.

That reconsideration revolves around a very specific point, namely that the contribution of biological innovation before the 1920s (or even later in some accounts) has been grossly understudied, underestimated (when it has been studied), and generally underappreciated (even when it has been studied and estimated). To motivate this point, the authors juxtapose their own research with that of those ?other accounts? of American agriculture, which the authors group into two, by no means mutually exclusive, categories. One set revolves around the induced innovation hypothesis, most typically associated with the work of Yujiro Hayami and Vernon Ruttan [2], and the other set focuses on what the authors refer to as ?the primacy of mechanization,? which is associated with the work of Parker and Judith Klein, along with so many other names in agricultural and economic history that space constraints prevent an even partial listing. Together, the induced innovation hypothesis and the primacy of mechanization narratives compose what we may call the ?standard account.?

The short version of the standard account goes like this: Labor was relatively scarce in American agriculture; thus market conditions induced innovation at the labor-saving margin, which in turn led to the primacy of mechanization over biological innovation, which in any case was not efficacious until well into the twentieth century. Thus labor productivity, which was tied to mechanization, increased; while yields, which were a function of biological innovation stagnated. One can find one version or another of this account in all of the leading economic history textbooks.

Olmstead and Rhode ? professors at, respectively, the University of California at Davis and the University of Arizona ? construct their rejection of the standard account on three pillars, arguing that: 1. biological innovation was pervasive in all leading crops and types of livestock throughout the nineteenth century; 2. innovation led to substantial increases in agricultural productivity, variously defined; and 3. there is no clear dichotomy between labor productivity and yields on the one hand and mechanization and biological innovation on the other. Their arguments are as persuasive as their evidence is overwhelming.

The authors dedicate the majority of their effort to providing a narrative of the early biological innovations in crops and livestock. These largely came through the efforts of individual enterprising farmers engaged in hit-or-miss hybridization and selective breeding of one type or another. In addition to this crop-by-crop and animal-by-animal narrative, the authors cover the basic biology of the crop or animal in question; the pests and diseases that afflicted it; and, at least in some cases, the quantitative contribution of the documented innovations; as well as, again in some cases, the early role of the government in promoting innovation. In addition to introductory and summary chapters, the volume covers, in separate chapters, wheat, corn, cotton, tobacco, livestock, draft animals, the dairy industry, and the agricultural cornucopia that is California. Indigo and cane sugar are about the only omitted products.

The organizing metaphor for much of the volume comes from the Red Queen in Lewis Caroll?s Through the Looking Glass: ?It takes all the running you can do,? she tells Alice, ?to keep in the same place.? It is a good choice. The authors illustrate that, absent innovation in, for example, wheat and corn, the farm frontier could not have been pushed to the drier harsher west and north. Another example: With respect to cotton, farmers employed key innovations, such as early-maturing strains, to combat the boll weevil. The volume proceeds similarly through the other farm outputs listed above. In short, the new account is that total output increased because biological innovations kept yields from falling in the face of the ever-changing nature of American agriculture. Thus, these early innovations allowed more land to be cultivated even though the yields on that land were not bringing up the national average. (Ironically, Parker made this very point in an overlooked essay he entitled ?The True History of the American Farmer,? writing that ?yields per acre … had increased relatively little, but had maintained their levels in the face of the vastly increased output and shifts to newer, drier areas.?[3]) Using wheat as an example of the resulting gains, the authors estimate that in the absence of the innovations they document, ?U.S. wheat production circa 1909 would have been 46 percent lower? (p. 61).

As for the induced innovation hypothesis, the authors reject it. They show that the trend in the land value-to-wage ratio increased during the period in which the standard account emphasizes labor scarcity and stagnation in biological innovation. In addition, more generally, the authors reject methodologies that identify labor productivity with improvements in mechanization and increasing yields with biological innovation. Cotton offers a good example of the problems with such a dichotomy. As one participant in the early nineteenth-century cotton business observed, improved hybrids generated ?large four or five-sectioned bolls [that] opened so widely upon ripening that their lint could be plucked from the pod more easily than any other known variety,? (p. 109), yielding labor productivity gains of roughly 50 percent.

The impact of these biological innovations on crop portfolios further complicates easy microeconomic analysis. For example, early hybrids allowed the corn frontier to move west and north, permitting mid-western wheat farmers to diversify their crop portfolios. Corn, a generally hardier crop with less time-demanding harvesting requirements than wheat, offered midwestern wheat farmers a hedge against the vagaries of their main crop. Calculating the gains from such a contribtion using the yield-productivity paradigm would be difficult.

As for complaints about the volume, Clio types will be disappointed that the authors do not provide for each product a detailed counterfactual estimate of the contribution to productivity from biological innovation. Also, the chapters are somewhat episodic. Coming, as some do, from articles the authors have published in other venues, this is to be expected to some extent. Also, the weight placed on cotton ? three chapters ? seems unjustified, and the chapter on California seems misplaced from another volume. And the attention paid to each sub-topic ? e.g. biology, pests, disease, and so forth ? and the care with which each is presented, varies from chapter to chapter, for no good reason that I could identify.

But really, I am quibbling merely for the sake of demonstrating a reviewer?s due diligence. I strongly recommend this volume to readers with any interest in U.S. economic history or the history of agriculture. I have already revised my lectures as a result of Olmstead and Rhode?s research; now I don?t spend quite as much time as I once did on the primacy of mechanization. Somewhere, Bill Parker must be smiling.


1. William N. Parker. Europe, America and the Wider World: Essay on the History of Western Capitalism, Volume 1, Europe and the World Economy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984, pp. xi-xiii

2. Yujiro Hayami and Vernon Ruttan. Agricultural Development: An International Perspective. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985, passim.

3. William N. Parker. Europe, America and the Wider World: Essay on the History of Western Capitalism, Volume 2, America and the Wider World. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 174.

Lee A. Craig is Alumni Distinguished Professor of Economics at North Carolina State University. His most recent published research on U.S. agriculture is, with Matthew T. Holt, ?Mechanical Refrigeration, Seasonality, and the Hog-Corn Cycle in the United States: 1870-1940,? Explorations in Economic History, 45 (Jan. 2008): 30-50.

Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII