Friday, November 19, 2010

Why the World Requires a Bread Basket

Field where the Bread Basket of the World begins
 The economics of homesteading is difficult to quantify in precise numbers, but late in the nineteenth and early twentieth century agriculture was a primary source of U.S. wealth. The United States is called the “Bread Basket of the World.” This simply means that the grain belt of the country provides grains and grain-based products to all corners of the globe. Previously, I had written about the increase in transportation and agricultural technologies that made physically moving the grains around the world possible, but what were some other forces at work that turned the Great Plains into an agricultural giant? The focus here is to begin thinking about what was happening in the United States and the world, and why did the world require a bread basket?

The United States, torn by the Civil War, was busy piecing the country back together during the 1860’s. During this time the government was trying to populate the western portion of the country by removing the American Indian and offering this land to individuals willing to live on and work the land. While agricultural production increased in the first decades following the Civil War, it took some time for the technology and population on the Great Plains to begin producing a surplus. During the 1860’s agricultural exports averaged a modest $182 million a year. The grain belt was just being born.

Grain belt of the Great Plains
By the 1870’s the grain belt was being settled rapidly, railroads were connecting cities to the farthest reaches of the Great Plains, and agricultural colleges were being built to supply the increased demand for applied technologies. Between the decades of 1870 to 1890 nearly 2 million new farms, double the total number that had existed in 1860, spread throughout the middle of the United States. One million new farms were being created every decade until the 1920’s when expansion finally reached a plateau.

I can only speculate on what factors allowed for the United States to emerge in the 20th century as the world’s leading agricultural superpower. European agricultural production would have been crippled during World War I and World War II as crop fields were turned into battlefields. The explosion of the world’s population that began around the beginning of the 20th century increased demand for agricultural products.

The timing of the Homestead Act is important because by the time these other key events began the agricultural infrastructure of the United States had been established and American farmers were in a position to contribute a large supply to the increasing demand. This is a complex issue that will require more extensive research, but there are some interesting questions to be asked about this history that have relevance to our present society.

The addition of the new farms directly led to an increase in production, but the population was growing as well, so surpluses were being consumed and profits grew proportionally to the number of farms. In order to become the “Bread Basket of the World”, a world market is required. So where did this market come from? Here, I do not pretend to know the answers. The U.S. was seeing the number of farms increase, and the production of those farms was increasing, in the decade of 1910-20 agricultural exports skyrocketed to an average of 1.9 billion annually.

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