Farming the Land

When colonists first began farming, their intent was to produce cash crops — sugar, cotton, and tobacco — for the colonies to prosper, and to supply enough food for survival and for trade with other colonists. The production of animal products such as wool and hides also kept farmers busy.

The slave trade provided much-needed laborers to fill the work force of the typical Southern plantation. Indentured servants from Europe also provided both skilled and unskilled labor to many colonies. Invention also led the way. By the mid-nineteenth century, proper drainage brought more land into cultivation, and farming implements had also advanced.

The cotton gin might even be blamed for the North-South turmoil. Invented by twenty-seven-year-old Eli Whitney in 1793, it made cleaning cottonseeds fifty times faster than by hand. Thus, cotton became king, and slavery the king's servant.

As far back as 1797, Charles Newbold, a New Jersey blacksmith, introduced the cast-iron moldboard plow. John Deere, another blacksmith, improved this plow in the 1830s, manufacturing it in steel. In 1831, twenty-two-year-old Cyrus McCormick invented the reaper, a machine that in only a few hours could cut an amount of grain that had taken two or three men a day to scythe by hand. Numerous other horse-drawn threshers, grain and grass cutters, cultivators, and other equipment made farming easier. By the late 1800s, steam power frequently replaced animal power in drawing plows and operating farm machinery.

Advancements in transportation with the construction of roads, canals, and railways meant that farmers could receive needed supplies and market their products to areas at a distance. Food stayed fresher for longer periods with the development of refrigeration in the late 1800s.

Some say the growing tensions in America were the result of conflict between wheat and cotton. The Southern farmers put all their faith in the cotton crop, which helped them earn money. However, as history would later show, their growing reliance on this sole crop created not only food shortages, but also a vulnerable economy. In the North, farmers prepared for a more diverse harvest and were putting new inventions to work in the fields. With crop failures in Britain and France, these countries desperately needed the grain exports the North could provide. Unwilling to risk famine, they refused to recognize the Southern states' cause.

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