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September 1997

Cyrus McCormick and the Problem With Agriculture

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.

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