The other day, as I was driving there and back again, the CNBC business news came on the radio, and the newsreader launched into a piece about the weather affecting crops in the Midwest. Farm income is expected to decline, he reported, and as a result stock prices for farm equipment manufacturers are expected to decline. That’s because, he said, farmers will be “buying fewer tractors and reapers.”
In reply to which I muttered under my breath that I suspected the horse collar market would be pretty soft, too. And the buggy whip market didn’t even bear thinking about.
To be fair, the newswriter was probably trying to get the idea across that farm equipment manufacturers in general might be seeing some tough times on the horizon. You can almost see the words rattling around in the writer’s heat—what do farmers use out there on the (as the Chicago Tribune once put it) the rural plains? Well, tractors, sure, but what else to farmers do? They sow and they reap—they must use reapers!
You’d think the media big boys would be able to afford to hire folks who know a little something about what they’re writing about. It’s entirely possible farmers will be buying fewer tractors next year, but farmers haven’t bought reapers for well over a century now.
A reaper, like a corn planter or a hay rake, was a machine with a special purpose—it cut “small grain” (oats, wheat, rye, barley) and prepared it to be bundled and allowed to dry before it was threshed—the grain separated from the stalks and chaff.
Reapers were some of the first harvesting machines and were the product of Yankee ingenuity. Before their advent, grain had to be cut by hand with scythes and then gathered into bundles by stoop labor that was laborious indeed. Only after the bundles were stacked into shocks and allowed to dry would they be hauled to the barn where they’d be threshed to remove the stalks and then the grain winnowed to remove the chaff.
With the frontier moving west into the prairies of Illinois where the rich soil produced bumper grain crops, Cyrus McCormick was among those who identified a need for a machine that would ease the labor and quicken the pace of the harvest. He came up with the first commercially successful harvester, a machine drawn by a horse or team that cut the grain stalks and laid them out where two men riding the harvester could bundle them and drop them on the ground to be later stacked into shocks to dry.
McCormick’s genius was his decision not to immediately manufacture all his own harvesters, but instead to sell franchises, letting others bear the cost of building manufacturies and producing his machines. Here in Kendall County, Isaac Townsend bought one of the first McCormick franchises and in 1841 began manufacturing harvesters in a small factory just off what is today Grove Road south of Oswego.
Powered by a steam engine shipped all the way from New York State, Townsend’s Oswego Manufacturing Company produced harvesters for a few years before the realities of his factory’s distance from raw materials and lack of a good transportation system led to its shutdown. But Townsend and the other franchisees helped spur others to perfect and then improve on McCormick’s basic design. In Plano, for instance, the Hollisters and Stewards developed an improved harvester that eventually added the capability to mechanically create and bind the bundles of grain. The development of the binder meant fewer farm laborers were needed to harvest much more grain, and productivity took another giant leap.
But even with the binder, bundles of grain had to be stacked to dry and then threshed. The invention of the threshing machine—also called the separator because it separated grain from stalks and chaff—in the 1840s helped a lot. With the invention of self-propelled steam engines that could not only move themselves from farm to farm, but could also tow a threshing machine, too, productivity got another big boost as farmers banded together to buy the expensive steamers and threshing machines.
The increase in U.S. farm productivity in the 60 years between 1830 and 1890, thanks to increasing mechanization, was nothing less than astonishing. In 1830, it took about 300 man-hours to produce 100 bushels of wheat. By 1890, thanks to mechanization, it took just 50 man-hours to produce that same 100 bushels.
Farm equipment manufacturers continued innovating and with economical internal combustion engine-powered tractors they also came up with a combined harvester that not only cut ripe grain in the field, but also threshed it to remove the stalks and winnowed it to separate out the chaff. These combines (combined harvesters) were first pulled by those new internal combustion tractors. Later, but not much later, self-propelled combines were introduced. It didn’t take long for the innovators to realize that the same machine could be used for both harvesting small grains as well as the newly introduced soybeans. And then somebody figured out how to design a combine that, just by changing the head—the mechanism that cuts and gathers the grain—on the combine you could turn it into a machine that also picked, husked, and shelled corn. And that leap led to the gigantic harvesting machines you see working in the fields from late summer on—one machine that replaced the harvester, the binder, the threshing machine, the corn picker/husker, and the corn sheller.
What has been the effect of all that mechanization on farm productivity? Nowadays, it takes less than three man-hours to produce 100 bushels of wheat—100 times less labor than it took our ancestors in the 1830s.
So here we are, nearly into September and the harvest of small grains is finished, the soybean harvest is coming up, and the corn harvest is at least on the horizon. For one more season, the farm calendar is shedding pages as folk in the country look forward to bringing in another crop.