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By Eller College

Economic historians Price Fishback — Frank and Clara Kramer Professor of Economics at the Eller College — and Paul Rhode have been awarded a three-year, $598,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to conduct a comprehensive analysis of the factors that contributed to the rise in U.S. farm productivity since 1870.

“When you look at the trend in U.S. farm productivity from 1800 to 1920, it looks like this —” Fishback says, indicating a flat line with a sweep of his hand. “But between 1920 and 1950, it shoots upward.”

Using data from over 3,000 U.S. counties from 1870 through 2000, Fishback and Rhode seek to measure how farm productivity responded to a variety of major changes, including climate and weather disasters, the contributions of new machinery and biotechnologies, and the influence of federal farm programs first introduced during the 1930s.

“Crop prices tanked in the 1920s and early 1930s,” explains Fishback. “Farmers were in bad shape, so during the ‘30s, the government paid them to take land out of production.” The first modern U.S. farm bill, the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, aimed to reduce farm output in an effort to raise the value of crops and stabilize farmers’ incomes. However, Fishback points out, the legislation coincided with significant weather disasters — drought in the Great Plains and flooding in Mississippi, Ohio, and Texas.

“It was the hottest decade in American history,” Fishback says. “That influenced productivity as well. So was it the policy or the weather that had the greater influence?”

Fishback also points to technological advances such as fertilizer and hybrid seeds, tractors, and electricity. Expansions of access to paved roads contributed to lower costs of distributing the crops. One reason that Fishback and Rhode need to compile data from so many counties over such a long period of time is that they are trying to sort out the impact of so many factors.

Even when national measures of farm productivity hardly grew during the 19th century, there were substantial changes in biotechnology. Rhode’s recent book with Alan Olmstead, Creating Abundance, describes how trial and error led to all sorts of hybrid seeds that allowed people to grow crops in northern landscapes long considered inhospitable to farm production. “A big part of the story of the American agriculture is the move to production in different areas,” Fishback points out.

The grant is funded for an initial three years, but Fishback anticipates that the overall research agenda will likely take at least a decade to complete. Compiling all the data needed into usable form will likely take two or three years alone. Meanwhile, he continues to work on studies of the New Deal and the Great Depression that were begun with prior NSF funding.