Farm Progress

We're looking back again today, in honor of the 175th anniversary of Prairie Farmer. Read about the highs, the lows and everything in between from 1900 to 1959.

Jill Loehr, Associate Editor, Prairie Farmer

November 1, 2016

7 Min Read

The beginning of the 20th century was a roller-coaster ride for agriculture. But it was also a time of tremendous progress — from new implements to herbicides, farm organizations and government programs. Many of today’s farmers began their journey in the 1950s, following World War II. It was a time of cautiously optimistic prosperity following the Great Depression and drought.

1900-1909: Manure spreaders, automobiles and tractors


In the early 1900s, farmers held one piece of machinery above all others: the manure spreader. Farmers shared letters of praise with Prairie Farmer, raving about its ability to spread manure evenly and save on manpower. The manure spreader was named “the most useful implement on the farm.”

Farmers met a new challenge on country roads: the automobile. Farmers and horses alike were forced to adjust to this new, fast machine.

Another game-changer arrived on the scene in 1900: the tractor. Shared initially as a drawing, Prairie Farmer said this new machine would be useful for plowing and running other machines, such as threshing equipment. Magazine editors encouraged farmers to purchase tractors as a group to save on costs.

1910-1919: Farm organizations, wartime and farm help

Dairy farmers from northern Illinois and Indiana came together to fight for a worthy cause: higher milk prices. When milk companies refused to pay the extra 22 cents producers asked for, farmers responded by dumping their product. It only took two weeks for milk companies to agree to the new price of $1.55 per cwt.

As farmers recognized the power in numbers, organizations such as the Illinois Agricultural Association formed in 1916. IAA is the legal name of the group known today as the Illinois Farm Bureau. Prairie Farmer supported the new organization and encouraged farmers to join and tackle agricultural issues together.

There was more fighting on another front: World War I. Farmers lost help on the farm as sons went to war. Prairie Farmer helped farmers find and place 17,000 boys and 42 girls from Chicago to assist on the farm. The extra hands were needed as demand for farm products soared. Ham and bacon were considered just as important as guns and ammo.

Farmers changed their production plans to favor wheat when the government set a fixed price at $2.26 per bushel.

And as more tractors arrived on farms, Prairie Farmer stressed the importance of caring for equipment and began printing floor plans for the first machine sheds.

From Prairie Farmer’s pages: 1900 to 1959

STRENGTH IN NUMBERS: After dairy farmers successfully fought for higher milk prices, production agriculture recognized the benefit of forming groups to lobby for a common cause. The Illinois Agricultural Association formed in 1916 and continued to have an impact for decades to come.

1920-1929: The roaring '20s?

The demand for farm products quickly fell after World War I, and grain prices tumbled dramatically by 1921. Farmers needed help. Remembering the success from the decade prior, they leaned on newly formed organizations like Farm Bureau. The organization helped create cooperatives and commission houses.

Although commodity prices dropped, land prices did not follow suit. Prairie Farmer Editor Clifford Gregory covered the issue and asked local assessors to revisit land prices and taxes.

Farm equipment continued to evolve: three-wheel tractors became four-wheeled. New equipment included horse-drawn combines, corn pickers and the “motorized cultivator.”

In the late 1920s, farmers could take an educational road trip. The University of Illinois and Purdue University launched educational trains. Although the content was intended for school-age children, adults found the information useful as well. Train riders reviewed displays onboard the train and heard presentations from soil specialists and agronomists at train station stops across the state. “Lectures will be given by specialists on the subjects of soils, crops, poultry, farm animals, dairy interests, insects and rodents that are most injurious to crops, birds that destroy these insects, etc.”

The decade closed with the 1929 stock market crash. Despite the opinions of several economists, rural America would soon suffer from the fallen market.

From Prairie Farmer’s pages: 1900 to 1959

QUALITY SEED: In 1926, Prairie Farmer editors shared how to make a “rag doll” tester to check seed germination.

1930-1939: Government programs, foreclosures and chinch bugs

To dig agriculture out of the low price slump following the market crash, the government stepped in with the Agricultural Adjustment Act. Many farmers were strongly opposed to the AAA, even comparing it to Adolf Hitler’s actions.

The program mandated reductions in hog production and corn acreage by 20% and 25%, respectively. Despite the program’s unpopularity with farmers, prices not only rebounded, but tripled in 18 months. 

The AAA didn’t last long. In 1936, with economic recovery in sight, the Supreme Court ruled the act unconstitutional. Legislators proposed a new AAA plan that included land improvement and soil conservation. 

Many farms struggled to survive. Prairie Farmer encouraged farmers to meet with their bankers and attempt to work out a proactive plan. In some reported cases, “county debt committees” helped negotiate a plan between farmers and bankers. A reduced debt load kept some farmers on their land.

Keeping land was one challenge; defending it from chinch bugs was another. Chinch bugs attacked wheat fields and then moved to corn. The population was so overwhelming that President Franklin Roosevelt declared an emergency and approved funding to ship creosote — an oily tar-like substance used on bridgework and railroad ties — to control the pest. Farmers dug trenches around fields and poured creosote from 50-gallon buckets to create a sticky barrier.

As if low market prices, foreclosures and chinch bugs weren’t enough, farmers also faced some of the driest years on record. The upside of the drought was a reduction in European corn borer populations, a pest that was quickly moving into Illinois.

From Prairie Farmer’s pages: 1900 to 1959

FORBEARANCE: On Feb. 18, 1933, the cover of Prairie Farmer brought news on farm foreclosures. Legislators pushed banks to agree on a “moratorium” for farms and homestead foreclosures. Illinois Gov. Henry Horner said in his appeal, “Agriculture, one of the basic industries in Illinois, has suffered more, perhaps, than anyr other industry in our state.”

1940 to 1949: Discoveries, wartime and equipment challenges

Commodity prices were getting stronger thanks to the highly debated government programs and demand from World War II. Farms were losing laborers, farmers and their sons to the draft and to factories paying higher wages.

With demand for farm products on the rise, the government changed its position from the 1930s: It wanted farmers to produce more, not less. That was not an easy task with fewer hands to do the work. And thanks to years of low prices, farmers were working with antiquated farm implements. Gently used equipment brought top bids at sales.

Commodity prices remained strong following the war, and land prices began to rise. With a rejuvenated focus on increasing yield, new products, such as 2,4-D, came into the market. New wheat varieties from Purdue University improved yield by 5 to 50 bushels per acre, and hybrid seed corn became the norm. Ammunition plants from the war became fertilizer plants.

The livestock industry also enjoyed new advancements. Research included antibiotics and feed additives, which would come into play in the 1950s.

1950-1959: New farms, new equipment and a new waterway

The 1950s signaled the beginning for several young farmers. According to Purdue University, farmers starting out would need $10,000 to establish a farm. Land prices were still high, and equipment remained hard to find. Prairie Farmer encouraged young farmers to start small or partner with their fathers, if possible.

At the same time, farmers debated major equipment purchases. Self-propelled implements were time-savers, but they were also expensive — almost three times the cost of tractor-drawn equipment. Corn heads evolved from one row to two. And the benefits of crop dryers became a topic of debate.

The 1950s also marked the beginning of a new era in hog production. Farmers started moving hogs from pastures into confinements. Illinois farmers began replacing granular fertilizer with anhydrous ammonia. 

Transportation to the Atlantic Ocean improved and shipping costs declined after the St. Lawrence Seaway opened at the Great Lakes.

Prairie Farmer noted farmers who successfully established their farm during the 1950s exhibited three qualities: hard work, ambition and enthusiasm.

From Prairie Farmer’s pages: 1900 to 1959

DECODING THE FARM BILL: In 1956 as now, farmers clamored to understand details of the new farm bill. Editor Jim Thomson outlined how the legislation impacted corn price support and allotments.

About the Author(s)

Jill Loehr

Associate Editor, Prairie Farmer, Loehr

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