Fordson, Farmall, And Poppin’ Johnny: A History of the Farm Tractor and Its Impact on America
After attending the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion in Rollag, I had some questions about the history and impact of steam engines and tractors. This book did a good job of answering those questions. Who was designing those tractors, what became of the early companies, why do tractors look and operate the way they do, when did they change designs, and how did they affect farmers, the environment, and the nation at large.
“Between 1920 and 1950 farmers replaced horses with tractors to power their enterprise. In a single generation, new machines transformed U.S. agriculture, and in one way or another, all of American society felt the impact. So, at least, argues this book’s author, a farmer with a Ph.D. in history. Technological change is the central theme: Williams devotes two-thirds of his lively and well-informed text to an account of tractor development. He then links this history of technology to other aspects of 20th-century U.S. economic and social history.” -Amazon
Excerpts From The Book
- R. B. Gray: Development of the Agricultural Tractor in the United States (1974)
- Michael Williams: Farm Tractors in Color (1974)
..one expert estimated that plowing consumed 60 percent of the total energy used to produce a crop of wheat. Even if steam was not the ultimate fulfillment of the farmer’s need for plowing power, it did put farmers on the lookout for some alternative.
At its peak in 1910, steam power furnished 3.6-million horsepower out of a total of just above 21 million in all forms on American farms. That was about 17 percent of the power available, a surprisingly large percentage considering that many if not most of the engines belonged to custom operators.
Finally, steam developed a reservoir of mechanical training for the operators, mechanics, and engineers who would later be necessary for tractors. Even though external and internal combustion engines differ in significant details, they operate upon similar principles. Mechanics who mastered steam engines undoubtedly found gasoline machinery less alien than those who had no such introduction.
Tractors seemed to reach optimum efficiency at about one hundred horsepower since larger sizes encountered problems with wheel slippage and soil compaction. But a significant demand existed for tractors of more than one hundred horsepower. The solution to the dilemma came in the form of four-wheel-drive.
Both innovative individual farmers and farm equipment researchers then began experimenting with connecting two tractors together in tandem to get twice as much traction and draft without increasing labor costs. It was an innovative concept, but the problems of synchronizing two engines and integrating two sets of controls were exceedingly difficult. Gradually the experimenters began to look instead at a single engine and single set of controls connected to four drive elements.
During the eighties hundreds of tractor dealerships failed, many of which had been in business for decades and were as well managed as comparable ventures outside the industry. Virtually every agricultural community witnessed untimely business deaths. The manufacturers were not much healthier than their dealers. Tractor sales plummeted. In 1983, the tractor market had shrunk by 60 percent from the 1979 level.
The gloom and pessimism in the industry perhaps accounted for its willingness to “roll over and play dead” in front of increased foreign competition. The manufacturers had showed little inclination to challenge imported tractors when they first became common during the booming sixties and the, prosperous seventies, nor did they do so in the early eighties despite excess manufacturing capacity for large tractors that probably approached 400 percent.
American manufacturers have consistently concentrated on larger and larger tractors and abdicated the small tractor market. By 1960, the United States manufactured few tractors of less than fifty horsepower, and because most foreign nations protected their small farms, huge American tractors sold poorly outside North America. Indeed, even within the United States tired old veteran Fords and Fergusons sold in the sixties and seventies for more than they had when new. There was obviously a vacuum in the domestic market.
In 1983 well over half of the tractors sold in the United States were manufactured elsewhere. In 1984, Japan’s Kubota claimed to be the third largest tractor vendor in the United States, with more than one thousand dealers and with tractors as large as 85 hp. Like many American industries, cowed tractor makers appeared to assume they could not compete with imports and resigned themselves to their demise without a fight. There was no evidence that any major American manufacturer seriously investigated the possibility of making small tractors in this country or sought innovative technology to make such production possible.” Apparently, the Americans consoled themselves with the thought that it would take Asian manufacturers several years to work up to large-scale tractors, the market segment where domestic profits centered. Such industrial cowardice was in ironic contrast to the high profile government foreign policy popular at the time in areas other than international trade. Yet the tractor industry had seen hard times before, and the possibility existed that a dynamic leader would emerge in one of the companies in the way that Alexander Legge, Harry Merritt, Harry Ferguson, and William Hewitt emerged in their respective firms in earlier crises.
The mechanical development of tractors in North America after the Second World War was largely devoid of bold, innovative changes. The changes that did take place were a matter of small incremental improvements. Few of these improvements were remarkable in and of themselves, but cumulatively they made tractors more useful, safer, and above all else, more comfortable.
One long-time observer of the industry described cabs and other refinements as virtual necessities. “They increase operator efficiency and productivity,” He said, “while reducing hazards to health, comfort and safety. Often they enabled the elderly farmer or the farmer in poor-health to continue farming.”
The tractor brought other problems to the new businessman-farmer, problems unknown in his grandfather’s day. Managing skilled labor and avoiding over-capitalization, for example, were both related to the adoption of tractors.
Farmers who survived not only had to use capital wisely, but they also had to be innovative. An Ohio rural sociologist described such innovative farmers as “adoption leaders.”
The readiness to innovate gave this type of farmer a distinct economic edge in the longer period. Such “adoption leaders” were easily identifiable. They tended to be better educated-or at least had more formal education. They tended to participate more in social activities, civic clubs, farm organizations, and church activities. The adoption leader was likely to be a young, second-generation family farmer. The larger his operation, the faster he was apt to innovate. His income increased along with his rate of innovation. He was prone to keep better-than-average records. He had distinctive sources of information, patterns of credit use, and a distinctive view of the future. In short, the adoption leader was clearly identifiable by a characteristic social profile.
Soon after tractor makers began mass production, farmers began agitating for crop-based fuels, primarily fuel alcohol or an alcohol-gasoline blend. Farmers hoped that by producing fuel alcohol, they could raise the disastrously low price of farm commodities and gain some control over their fuel supply. Agitation increased in the thirties, and both politicians and engineers exhibited some interest in the concept. But the petroleum industry suffered from a glut of crude oil and furiously opposed any implementation of a fuel-alcohol program.” The combination of cheap petroleum prices and the oil industry’s political influence blocked experimentation on a commercially viable scale.
–page 138, 139
The tractor helped to overcome the physical disabilities-primarily the lack of brute strength-that hampered a woman’s entry into farming. Although women had occasionally become farmers before the tractor arrived, tractors made it easier for a woman to compete in agriculture by reducing the level of physical exertion.
The tractor remained indifferent to the sex of its operator. The use of the tractor had seemed to promise something to nearly everyone on the farm. The fulfillment of those promises was not always exactly what had been anticipated. Work reduction was sometimes made actually available only at an excessive monetary sacrifice, and potential leisure was often offset by physical danger. Reduced physical exertion was frequently counterbalanced by greater financial worries. While few farmers would choose to return to pre-mechanization days, the tractor’s benefits to the individual farmer were not free.
–page 142, 143
In 1941 estimates of “released” land came to about thirty-five million acres that had shifted into market production between 1918 and 1945. One observer noted that, “the sudden disappearance of about 16,000,000 horses in the thirties was a prominent factor in the depression of that period. By their removal, the farmer lost the market for the products of about 60,000,000 acres of land, which had been used for the production of horse feed. ” In addition, there was a marked decrease in the market demand for oats and hay. Not only did the tractor release additional acres for market production, but it also increased the yield of each acre, whether new or old. Although there were numerous minor factors that allowed a tractor to increase yields, the overwhelming factor was timeliness.
The difference between harvesting an excellent crop and suffering a total loss may well be a matter of hours. The most obvious example of critical time can be seen at harvest, when combines and trucks may have to race furiously against an impending storm with its dark potential of destructive hail.
Horses were limited as to speed and the equipment size they could pull; tractors ran faster and pulled larger tools. By speeding up critical operations, tractors appreciably increased yields, both for the individual farmer and for the nation as a whole, although a few farmers claimed that they could get into the field earlier with horses in a wet spring than they could with tractors. The importance of timeliness has been a continuous refrain almost from the advent of the tractor.
In late 1948, the government named International Harvester, Case, and Deere in an antitrust suit. The source of complaint in this action seems to have been the manufacturers’ own dealers-not disgruntled farmers and the implement dealers’ trade magazine applauded the government action. Eventually the FTC dropped the complaints, and the industry returned to business as usual.
Given the status of agriculture and the status of the farm equipment industry, it seems obvious that the status quo has not worked well. The tractor had a profound influence on the physical and social environment of America. It changed the tilth of small soil samples and the population of the major cities.
The physical environment was perhaps most obviously altered by changes in the nature and size of farm fields. .. Experts advised the farmer, “If the tractor doesn’t fit in with your system of farming, try changing your system of farming.” In so doing, he often changed the environment even more than he realized.
–page 176 ,177