American agriculture is a hot topic these days, with documentaries on the food industry, and major news stories on food contamination, the childhood obesity epidemic, and concerns about the environment as a result of climate change.
At Gettysburg, we offer a field program for students on the Slyder Family Farm, located at the base of Big Round Top.
The Slyder family farmed 88 acres of property, growing enough to sustain themselves throughout the year. For the first part of the program, students learn about daily farm chores and food production. For example, we investigate the smokehouse used to preserve meat in an era before refridgeration, play a matching card game with parts of a pig and their uses for the Slyders, and we take turns at flailing and winnowing wheat when we talk about bread production.
For many students, this is the first time they have ever really thought about where their food comes from, and how much work went into a subsistence farm in the 19th century.
The second part of the program focuses on July 2, 1863 when thousands of Confederate troops trampled crops on their way to the fight at Little Round Top. Afterwards, soldiers used the Slyder barn for a hospital, routed for food in the garden, drank up the water in the well and Plum Run, and buried some of the dead. The Slyders returned to a destroyed farm, with little means to feed themselves for the rest of the year – all in an era before FEMA, Red Cross, and today’s concept of insurance.
For Civil War teachers who cannot make it to Gettysburg or other Civil War parks for such a program, agriculture is still a powerful and relevant topic. Using the Timeline and Discussion Questions below, you can build context into your Civil War unit, intersect with science and other disciplines, and help your students begin to think not just about the day of the battle, but about the consequences of battle in the days, weeks and months ahead. Before there were Civil War battlefields and National Parks, there were farmer’s fields used for raising animals and growing crops for the year ahead.
Adjust the timeline information to fit the age level of your students and to coordinate with your unit; additions can be made by the students for things that have occurred in their lifetimes. Then distribute the timeline to each student or student group, or copy it onto a PowerPoint slide or whiteboard. Briefly discuss the changes in agriculture throughout the country’s history, and draw the students’ attention to the inventions that were or were not yet available to the Civil War farmer.
Possible questions and activities for discussion include:
Why was a standard plow moldboard such an important invention?
List the things that farmers use today that were not yet invented for John Slyder to use in 1863.
Explain how farm output, or production, continues to increase over the course of the timeline and yet the number of farmers continues to decrease.
What is the importance of a transcontinental railroad (1862) to farming/agriculture?
Label the following eras onto the timeline:
1.) Man-Powered; 2.) Animal-Powered; 3.) Machine-Powered
What other labels for trends and patterns can you think of for the timeline?
How has agriculture affected other parts of American history? How have other events/eras influenced the history of agriculture? Cite an example, and support your answer. (Examples may include The Great Depression, slave labor, the Industrial Revolution.)
Has goverment intervention been good or bad for the American farmer? Support your answer.
Has capitalism/commercialism been good or bad for the American farmer? Support your answer.
What has been the most significant invention or event in American agriculture for your life today?
Timeline of American Agriculture
1493 – Christopher Columbus introduced yearling calves, goats, sheep, pigs, hens and horses as well as seeds of oranges, limes, melons, barley, grapes, sugar cane, and wheat into the New world.
1609 – Settlers at Jamestown learned from Powhaton Indians how to grow corn.
1621 – Pilgrims at Plymouth learned from the Indians how to cultivate corn, beans, squash, and pumpkin. Native peoples of the time engaged in “hill culture”, cultivating crops in mounds in natural clearings. They did not use draft animals or fertilizers generally.
1607 -1700- European grains (corn, wheat, rye, oats, rice) were introduced and cultivation gradually improved. Also during this time, various livestock (cattle, horses, hogs) was imported from Europe, and raised wild in herds.
1626- First flour mill in colonies was built in New Amsterdam.
1685- Potatoes were introduced into Pennsylvania.
1701- Jethro Tull invented the first seed drill.
1749- By this time, the practice of sowing grasses on tilled (or prepared) land was widespread. Sheep were now being raised in New England.
1790- Over 90% of the persons gainfully employed in the colonies were engaged in agriculture.
1793- Thomas Jefferson invented a mold board (curved plate on a plow that turns over the soil) based upon scientific principles. Also invented was the cotton gin by Eli Whitney, which greatly facilitated the processing of cotton and therefore encouraged extraordinary expansion of the product.
1797-Charles Newbold patented a cast-iron plow.
1799- Eliakim Spooner invented a seeding machine.
1818-By this time, a meat packing industry has been established in Cincinnati, Ohio.
1834- Cyrus McCormick patented the first reaper, a harvesting machine that cut grain quickly.
1834- The Pitts brothers patented a thresher that separated the grain from its husk.
1836- Hiram Moore and J. Haskell patented a combine, which cut and threshed grain all at one time.
1837- John Deere began manufacturing plows with a steel share and a smooth, wrought-iron moldboard.
1840- The cradle, introduced in 1820 as a substitute for the sickle in reaping, was in general use.
1850- 1860- As a result of westward expansion, the “corn belt” is established in the central northern states. The North Atlantic states expand their production of dairy products.
1860- Almost 60% of persons gainfully employed in the United States were engaged in agriculture. Also by this time, the Hussey and McCormick reapers have replaced the cradle on most farms.
1862- On May 15, the Department of Agriculture was established. On May 20, the Homestead Act was approved, encouraging the expansion of agriculture further west. On July 1, an act granted land to two railroad companies for the construction of a transcontinental railroad.
1866-1900- Expansion of domestic and foreign markets; in 1870, there are 493 million acres of farmland in America – by 1890, there are 839 million acres. Livestock markets also expand. Use of commercial fertilizers greatly increases.
1886- Steam tractor is invented.
1892- Gasoline tractor is invented.
1903- The first firm devoted to manufacturing gasoline tractors is established.
1930-31- Diesel engine tractor introduced.
1933-34- Drought and dust storms wreak havoc on western agriculture.
1933- Civilian Conservation Corps created by President Roosevelt, putting youth to work in parks and forests. Agricultural Adjustment Act approved, and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration was established. The Farm Credit Act consolidated all rural credit agencies under the Farm Credit Administration. These measures are in response to the country’s economic depression.
1949- U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist suggested the “package approach to farming.” This meant using all available technologies for increasing production to sell, in contrast to subsistence agriculture when farmers produced only what their family could use.
1950- Only 11% of gainfully employed persons in America were engaged in agriculture.
1956- Agriculture Act of 1956 (Soil Bank) included provisions for Federal financial assistance to farmers for converting general cropland into conservation uses.
1960- Figures revealed that over a 20-year period, farm output increased by more than 50%. Also, U.S. land under irrigation reached 33,829,000 acres.
1974- The average farm size increased from 174 acres in 1940 to 385 acres in 1974.