Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Homestead Act Influence on Agricultural Identity

America has often been called the “bread basket of the world.” The title reminds us that we have the ability to produce large amounts of grains that can be shipped to all corners of the earth. But the capability to perform this task is a relatively recent phenomenon. About a century and half ago, the United States was still forging an identity in the world; and on its own continent. In 1862 President Abraham Lincoln, by signing the Homestead Act, created the opportunity for our young nation to grow into the largest agricultural producer in the history of the world.

The Homestead Act, coupled with advances in transportation, put the United States in a position to produce and distribute copious amounts of vegetables and grains. However, conquering the land would prove a long and arduous task. Homesteaders flooded the western United States and began plowing millions of acres of land. Most were focused on sustaining their own livelihood by producing enough to get them through the harsh winters the plains and prairies were infamous for. In an attempt to accomplish this goal an amazing thing happened; inventions and new agricultural techniques began to make farming easier and more productive. I do not mean to insinuate that farming a century ago was easy, but compared to the previous two millennia farmers were able to expend less energy and produce more yields than ever before.

This did not happen overnight; generations of homesteaders dedicated their lives, often in vain, to attain perfect farming techniques. As yields increased farmers turned to the railroads to distribute their products. Increased yields provided more feed for ranchers and in turn more beef became available. Large transport networks, preservation techniques, and refrigeration allowed perishable items to be transported over longer distances. The Midwest and Great Plains slowly became economically viable, not only to the United States, but to the rest of the world.

The emerging global economy was tested by World War I. While the rest of the world struggled to manufacture enough for themselves, the United States enjoyed a surplus. After WWI, grain prices plummeted and many farms did not survive; nevertheless, the grain belt of the United States was firmly established as a leader in global grain production. The depression of the 20’s and 30’s coupled with the disastrous dust bowl tested the will of a majority of farmers, but many persevered through these hardships emerging stronger and more determined than ever.

In the wake of the Second World War homesteaders and their descendents had firmly established themselves as, not only self-sufficient farmers, but the manufactures of global produce. The lessons of recent decades still fresh in the minds of many led to a greater respect and more careful treatment of the land.

Modern society often takes for granted where its produce comes from, but it comes from the sacrifice of several generations who endured the pains of our modern agricultural revolution. The Homestead Act was the conduit that accelerated Western development and created an agricultural identity unique to the United States.

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