We Reap What He Reaped

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Whatever the oldest profession may be, the oldest occupations are hunting and gathering. Indeed, for millions of years they were the only occupations, until farming began about 10,000 years ago and slowly spread around the world. Two hundred and fifty years ago, perhaps 80 percent of the population of the Western world was engaged in agriculture. But then, as the Industrial Revolution began in the cloth industry in the English Midlands, the percentage of the population that was devoted to farming began to drop.

In the industrialized world it has been dropping ever since. In the United States, 71.8 percent of the working population were farmers in 1820. By 1900 it was 37.5 percent; by 1960, 6.1 percent. In 1994 it was a mere 2.5 percent. Yet agricultural production has soared. The United States, despite having so few farmers, not only can feed itself but is the world’s leading exporter of agricultural products.

But while the number of farmers has been dropping steadily, their political clout has not dropped commensurately. There are three principal reasons for this. One is that each state has two senators regardless of population. This gives farm states great influence in the Senate. Second, every state has a significant agricultural sector in its economy. Even tiny Rhode Island has some 700 farms. Finally, generations after most of us left, there is still a deep, if atavistic, affection for what is now largely a myth, the “family farm.”

Agricultural lobbyists, both here and elsewhere in the industrial world, have been able to use this myth very effectively to protect farmers from economic reality with lavish government subsidies, tariff protection, and import quotas. The result is not only sometimes mountainous agricultural surpluses in the developed world but higher prices for consumers and agricultural distress—owing to lack of export markets—in undeveloped countries, where a far higher percentage of the work force is still engaged in agriculture.

Finding a way to reduce and then eliminate the subsidies and protection will be one of the biggest political problems to solve as the world moves more and more to an integrated global economy. The problem only came about in the first place, however, because the United States began finding ways to mechanize agriculture in the early nineteenth century and has been finding new ways ever since. The man who started the process was Cyrus McCormick.

Cyrus McCormick’s ancestors were Scots-Irish, who were known as a prideful and cantankerous lot. Their most famous son was Andrew Jackson, who fought three duels and avoided several others only when his opponents wisely backed down. Of one early Scots-Irish immigrant, a contemporary said: “His looks spoke out that he would not fear the devil, should he meet him face to face. . . .” The McCormick family was no exception to this generality. Cyrus would one day sue the Pennsylvania Railroad over a matter arising from an overcharge of $8.70 and take the case to the United States Supreme Court before winning it—a year after his death.

The McCormicks arrived in the 173Os and later settled in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, where Cyrus was born in 1809, on his father’s 1,200-acre farm. McCormick’s father also operated a whiskey distillery and a small farm-implement shop, where he tinkered with inventions, none of which were commercially successful.

Cyrus, like his father, was a born tinkerer, and he happily spent hours working in his father’s shop. There he began thinking about the problem of reaping the rapidly expanding American wheat crop.

In Europe, where land was dear and labor cheap, that was not much of a problem. But in the new United States it certainly was, because this country had the opposite situation: endless fertile land and an acute labor shortage. The labor shortage limited the amount of land that could be planted with wheat because there is a very limited time after the wheat is ready for harvest when it can be reaped.

Unlike plowing, reaping is a complex task, and McCormick began thinking about how its various parts could be mechanized and accomplished by one machine. By 1831, when he was only 22, he had a working prototype. An arm gathered the wheat to be cut by a knife that moved back and forth. The knife had “fingers” attached to hold the wheat and to prevent its being merely flattened by the knife, rather than cut. The cut wheat then fell onto a platform, from which it was raked off, bundled, and tied by hand.

All of this was powered by a wheel that dug into the ground and turned the machinery as the wheel turned. The entire assembly was set off to one side so that the horse pulling it would not trample the wheat to be cut.

In 1831 McCormick gave the first public demonstration of his new reaper, at Lexington, Virginia, 18 miles south of the family farm. Opinions were decidedly mixed. The horses panicked at the noise the machine made, and it had to be pulled by slaves instead. One witness thought it would be worth “a hundred thousand dollars,” then a vast sum of money, but another thought it was “a right smart curious sort of thing, but that it wouldn’t come to much.”