Comparing agriculture of the past with today

If you ask your grandparents how they got their food, they might have a different answer than you think. Why is this? It’s because agriculture has changed throughout history.

Tractors help farmers be efficientThere are over seven billion people in the world and that number is expected to grow to nine billion by the year 2050 (Simmons, 2011). That’s a lot of people to feed! How will we be able to provide safe, nutritious food to all these people? The answer: through changes and advances in the agricultural system.

Over 200 years ago, 90 percent of the U.S. population lived on farms and produced their own food to eat. But today, only two percent of the population produces the food, including fruits, vegetables, meats and dairy, that everyone eats (Prax, 2010). That’s a large change in the amount of people associated with producing food and making sure that everyone has enough to eat.

Farmers use technology to make advances in producing more food for a growing world. Through the use of technology, each farmer is able to feed 155 people today, compared to 1940, when one farmer could feed only 19 people (Prax, 2010). Farmers use technologies such as motorized equipment, modified housing for animals and biotechnology, which allow for improvement in agriculture. Better technology has allowed farmers to feed more people and requires fewer people to work on farms to feed their families.

Photo from the Animal Science Image GalleryChanges in equipment have made a large impact on the way farmers are able to farm and grow food. In the past, farmers would have to do field work by hand or with horse-drawn equipment. This work would take a long time to complete, which meant that farms were smaller because farmers could only work so much land. Horses were not very fast, and they would tire out so farmers would have to let the horses rest. Today, most farmers use tractors and other motorized equipment to help with field work. Tractors are larger and move faster than horses, so farmers are able to work on more land and grow more food. Tractors still need to be taken care of because they can break down just like a car. But they can run for longer periods of time and work when the farmer needs them.

The way in which farm animals are raised and where they live has changed as well. Through research with animals, scientists have discovered what types of housing are best for animals to live in and produce food. Dairy cows now live in barns that have soft mattresses, sand beds or water beds for them to sleep on, nutritionists to feed them special diets, and fans and sprinklers to keep them cool when it is hot outside. In the past, farmers did not know what made a cow comfortable, but now that farmers have more information, they can better take care of their animals. This allows cows to make more milk.

Photo from the Animal Science Image GalleryChickens now live indoors most of the time to protect them from predators such as hawks and foxes and also to protect them from diseases that might be carried by wild birds. When chickens live inside, both the eggs and the meat they produce are protected from diseases, and farmers can make sure that consumers receive healthy products.

Biotechnology in agriculture is the use of technology to make advances in crop production and in animals. Seed technology has changed from the past to today, where crops are able to withstand harsh weather conditions such as drought and flooding. In the past, whole harvests could have been destroyed by a drought because the plants were not designed to withstand those conditions. But now, thanks to biotechnology and genetic engineering, crops are able to withstand harsh conditions which means that even in bad weather years, farmers are still able to harvest crops and provide food to the market. Farmers can grow a variety of things in their fields because seeds are designed to adapt to different conditions. This means that farmers can grow different foods and add diversity into our diets. Pesticides and herbicides, when used in moderation by farmers, offer the chance to protect crops against unwanted pests such as insects and weeds. By decreasing the amount of pests, farmers are able to yield more food which allows them to sell more food to the market and ensure that people have enough to eat.

Environmental standards, which are rules for protecting the environment, have changed over time and allow for better use of our natural resources. Farmers are now taking stock of how they use resources and making a commitment to better use those resources for a more sustainable world. Through the use of technologies, farmers are able to provide extra care for the land. From 1944 to 2007, farmers have been able to reduce the amount of resources needed on a dairy farm and the amount of waste coming from the farm (Capper et al., 2009). Cows of today are also able to produce more milk and have decreased their carbon footprint by 41 percent per kilogram of milk produced (Capper et al., 2009). The beef industry has also reduced their use of resources by using 69.9 percent of beef cattle, 81.4 percent of feedstuffs, 87.9 percent of water and only 67 percent of the land required to produce one billion kilograms of beef from 1977 to 2007 (Capper, 2011). Farmers are working hard to control the waste that is generated by their farms and many have implemented Nutrient Management Plans. These plans help to track how waste, such as water and manure, is stored on the farm and how manure is used as fertilizer.

Farms are growing in size because of increased efficiency. In the past, cows had to be milked by hand, and it took a long time to do this. But today, cows are milked with special machines that take less time to milk the cow and fewer people have to spend time milking. This allows farmers to milk more cows, and produce more milk for you and your family to drink. There are fewer farmers today because farmers are able to produce more food with the land that they have. This allows food to be more affordable in the store so fewer people go hungry. Also, because farmers can produce more food, those not involved in farming can work in fields such as education, science, history, medicine, journalism or many other occupations.

Today, people can still grow their own food at home. You could plant a garden at home to grow your own food, and see what it is like to be farmer on a small scale. There are many different types of farms that have different practices for growing food.

One thing remains the same about agriculture today as it did centuries ago: farm families own and operate farms. Whether it is your next door neighbor or farm miles away from you, farmers and their families are working hard to bring healthy and affordable food to your dinner plate.

Learn more about modern animal agriculture

Works Cited 

Capper, J. L., Cady, R. A., & Bauman, D. E. (2009). The environmental impact of dairy production: 1944 compared with 2007. Journal of Animal Science, 87, 2160-2167.

Capper, J. L. (2011). The environmental impact of beef production in the United States: 1977 compared with 2007. Journal of Animal Science, 89, 4249-4261.

Prax, V. (2010, April 28). American family farmers feed 155 people each- 2% Americans farm. Retrieved from:

Simmons, J. (2011). Technology’s role in the 21st century: Making safe, affordable and abundant food a global reality. Elanco Animal Health, 1-12.

Featured Resource

Video written and produced by Dr. Alison Van Eenennaam  comparing animal agriculture of the past with today.

Interesting talk given by Dr. Jude Capper of Washington State University comparing the carbon footprint of dairy production in 1944 with that in 2007.

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