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Industrializing the Corn Belt: Agriculture, Technology, and Environment, 1945-1972

Author(s):Anderson, J. L.
Reviewer(s):Brimlow, Jacob N.

Published by EH.NET (March 2010)

J. L. Anderson, Industrializing the Corn Belt: Agriculture, Technology, and Environment, 1945-1972. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2008. 248 pp. $33 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-87580-392-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Jacob N. Brimlow, College of Agriculture, California State University, Chico.

Between 1945 and 1970, farm acreage in Iowa decreased from 21.5 to 20.4 million acres, but the amount of corn and pork being produced on those acres nearly doubled. In Industrializing the Corn Belt: Agriculture, Technology, and Environment, 1945?1972, J. L. Anderson uses a farmer-focused approach to illustrate the massive transformation of corn belt farming in the years following World War II.

The defining characteristic of Anderson?s narrative is its focus on the farmer perspective. The approach was popularized by Alan Bogue in a description of nineteenth-century agriculture in Iowa and Illinois that is considered a standard for agricultural histories (e.g., Bergman 1996). In 1945, farmers in the Midwest faced stagnant commodity prices, rising land values, and increasing input costs ? what Anderson refers to as the ?cost-price squeeze? ? as well as looming labor shortages. As a result, farmers were constantly searching for ways to do more with less, and Industrializing the Corn Belt is ultimately a story about how technology was leveraged to achieve this goal. Anderson incorporates impressively detailed records of purchases, production decisions, and opinions drawn from archival documents, diaries, and interviews. The details occasionally feel awkward and incompletely incorporated, and some readers may find them tedious, but the context and texture they add vastly outweigh these potential issues and give the narrative balance.

Anderson covers an impressive number of technologies in less than 200 pages carefully choosing his topics and confining his analysis to Iowa. Technological changes are divided into two main categories: chemical, which include insecticides, herbicides, fertilizer and feed additives; and mechanical, which include improvements in grain harvesting and storage. Anderson leaves other important innovations, such as artificial insemination, genetics, breeding standards, and tractor technology for future study, and does not discuss in detail the large increases in farm credit and lending that enabled farmers to adopt many of the new technologies.

The first four chapters cover chemical innovations and technologies: pesticides, antibiotics, growth hormones, and chemical fertilizers used to ?mechanize? the nitrogen cycle. The first chapter, ?Insecticide: Time for Action? focuses on how farmers switched from cultural techniques to insecticides to combat three major corn pests ? European corn borers, corn rootworms, and several fly species ? that decreased yields and forced farmers to rotate fields between corn, oats, and hay. During the period from 1945 to 1970, farmers used chlorinated hydrocarbons such as DDT until pest resistance forced a move to the more expensive and toxic organophosphates, such as Diazinon. Anderson discusses how the increased use of chemical insecticides in general, and of organophosphates in particular, forced farmers to face new realities of safety and loss of individual freedoms to government pesticide regulation.

Discussion of the increasing complexity of chemical choices made by farmers continues in the second chapter, ?Herbicide versus Weedy the Thief,? where Anderson shows the role farmers played in the evolution of growth-regulating herbicide use for weed control. As farmers increased their use of chemical herbicides, changes in farmland ecology forced farmers to adjust. Herbicide manufacturers offered an increasingly expensive and complex suite of chemical herbicide options, and farmers experimented with the products in attempts to maximize herbicide impacts and farm profit. Iowa farmers largely ignored manufacturer and extension agent warnings to mix the new chemical approaches with more traditional cultural ones, and became increasingly committed to the new corn, soybean, and livestock operations they were learning to manage.

Anderson?s focus on Iowa is important to the third chapter, ?Fertilizer Gives the Land a Kick,? because Iowa farmers were relatively late adopters of chemical fertilizers used to ?mechanize? the nitrogen cycle. In contrast to nearby states such as Ohio and Illinois, Iowa farmers had almost exclusively managed soil nutrients using crop rotation and manure application. However, increased yields experienced by farmers in other states, along with fertilizer industry marketing efforts, made more intensive chemical fertilizer use impossible for Iowa farmers to ignore. Anderson describes the combination of individual experience, industry guidance, and research findings farmers balanced to decide not if, but when, where, and how much chemical fertilizer to use.

In the fourth chapter, ?Feeding Chemicals,? Anderson discusses the decisions Iowa farmers made to introduce feeding chemicals to improve the profitability of their livestock operations, and how those decisions affected the public image of livestock producers and the government regulation they eventually faced. Anderson reports the cost savings realized by producers using feed additives and how those savings led to drastic increases in the prevalence of feed additives in the late 1940s and 1950s. Health and safety concerns arising from the increased use of feed chemicals and their impacts, including a move toward animal confinement systems, posed major challenges for farmers reliant on feeding chemicals by the 1960s. Anderson offers some farmer perspectives on changes in public opinion and the introduction of new regulation, such as the amendment to the Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act of 1938 that prohibited the use of known carcinogens in livestock production.

The second four chapters of the book are devoted to showing how Iowa farmers developed and adopted mechanical technologies to increase the efficiency of crop harvesting, grain storage, and materials and waste handling. In the fifth chapter, ?Push-Button Farming,? Anderson discusses how new automated systems impacted dairy operations, livestock waste control, and the prevalence and size of feedlots and animal confinement operations. The number of farmers able to afford and justify automated systems in the 1945?1970 period was quite low, but Anderson notes that ?this generation?s legacies were larger operations, more intensive livestock production, serious environmental consequences, and government regulation relating to waste management on modern farms? (p. 137).

Two major improvements in haymaking technology ? the automatic twine baler and field forage harvester ? became accessible to Iowa farmers in the mid-1940s. In the sixth chapter, ?Making Hay the Modern Way,? Anderson provides a concise illustration of the evolution of farming from a labor- to capital-intensive industry by describing the choices farmers made regarding the adoption of new haying technologies. Anderson links haying technology decisions to farm changes as varied as the size of the operation, crop rotation and timing, the composition of farm labor, and farm capital improvements and financing.

Anderson uses the seventh chapter, ?From Threshing Machine to Combine,? to explain how the time most Iowa farmers spent harvesting grain went from two to four weeks in 1945 to just two or three days by the late 1960s. He explains how advances in combine technology drove farmers toward soybeans and away from small grains, and provides illuminating insight into how the introduction of combines redefined family and social structures in the Midwest.

The discussion of combines is continued in the context of corn harvesting in the eighth chapter, ?From Corn Picker and Crib to Combine and Bin.? Anderson points out that farmers were eager to switch from hand harvesting to mechanical corn pickers in the 1930s and 40s, but the high costs of transitioning from relatively cheap, proven mechanical corn pickers to picker-sheller or combine systems made profiting from the change difficult for all but the largest corn growers. The newer systems required farmers to replace or update ear corn cribs with new drying and storage facilities for shelled corn, and picker-shellers and combines came with high initial price tags and increased operating costs. Anderson notes that by 1970, more farmers were harvesting and drying shelled corn than ear corn, due largely to increased spending on fertilizers, herbicides, and insecticides; shelled corn could be harvested earlier, minimizing the risks of seeing money spent on inputs disappear as losses in the field.

The purpose of Industrializing the Corn Belt is ?to explain farmers? roles in changing agricultural production, to describe the technology they adopted, and to show how they transformed the rural landscape? (p. 5). With limitations of the scope of the narrative aside, Anderson has fulfilled this purpose and then some, not only explaining, describing, and showing, but placing his readers alongside farmers while they grappled with difficult decisions in rapidly changing times. Anderson spends a few pages in the conclusion revisiting some of the ideological issues of technology and the environment that farmers considered in the years following WWII; forty years later, they are familiar.

Reference: Marvin Bergman, editor, Iowa History Reader. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1996.

Jacob Brimlow is an assistant professor at Chico State University. His research interests include the effects of voluntary, conservation-related land use restrictions on the market value of productive farmland. He can be contacted at jbrimlow@csuchico.edu.

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