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Were farmers America’s first high tech information workers?

Settlers in North America during the 1600s and 1700s grew and raised all their own food, with tiny exceptions, such as importing tea. In the nineteenth century, well over 80% of the American public either lived at one time on a farm or made their living farming. Today, just over 1% does that in the United States, even though there is a surge going on in small organic family farming. The majority of American food is still grown or raised in the US, although much is also imported. So, any understanding about the role of information in any century involves farmers, in the beginning because almost everyone was involved, and later because they had figured out how to industrialize its massive production so that farming only required a tiny number of people. Information made that profound switch possible.

Farmers didn’t just use machinery that was invented over the past two hundred years, including the tractor in the twentieth century, which massively reduced the number of workers and animals needed to operate a farm. They also utilized data. By the 1870s, the US Government began collecting and disseminating scientific information to farmers. Beginning a decade earlier, Congress passed legislation that funded the creation of state universities for the purpose of doing research on agriculture and sharing the results with farmers. That is how the US acquired massive state universities like the University of Minnesota or the University of Wisconsin.

In 1862, Congress established the US Department of Agriculture and began a continuous program of publishing literature for use by farmers to improve their productivity and to address specific problems, such as curing animal, and crop diseases. By the 1880s, state universities and the Department of Agriculture began hiring agricultural agents stationed in almost every agricultural county in the country to transfer research findings and best practices created at the state universities to individual farmers, one-by-one. They also disseminated information through training programs for future farmers, similar to programs like 4-H today. By the early 1900s female home economists, also funded by the US Department of Agriculture and managed by the state universities, were educating children and women about farming best practices.

Scientific research in the 1920s and 1930s expanded knowledge about plant and animal diseases, development of fertilizers, and hybrid seeds that led to higher yields of such crops as beans, corn, potatoes, and wheat. The US rapidly became one of the world’s largest exporters of agricultural products.

Farm by G123E123E123K123. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

In the years following World War I, farmers also extended their formal education from roughly the eighth grade through to completion of high school. High schools offered courses in agriculture and home economics. By the end of the 1960s, it was not uncommon for young farmers to have completed a college education with a major in agriculture. During the post-World War II years, the volume of literature on agricultural practices expanded massively and was used by college-educated farmers. They began attending seminars on agricultural practices sponsored by their state universities and county “ag” agents, while manufacturers of fertilizers and other products hosted these too.

Farmers gained access to the Internet in the 1990s, but largely on a wide-scale basis in the 2000s, when they accessed growing amounts of information about all manner of farming issues. They did more than use the Internet. Farmers installed micro weather stations on their properties and subscribed to aerial crop surveillance surveys, including accessing weather reports of their region from satellite-based services. Many communicated data through the Internet.

By the 2010s, wireless communications involving smart phones, laptops, and PCs had enabled farmers to build an extensive information ecosystem in support of their work. Their communications back and forth with agricultural experts, local universities, and vendors became more frequent and increased in volume.

By the 2010s, young farmers had taken to social media. If you subscribe to a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) providing you with vegetables every week, then you probably also are receiving e-mails from your farmer reporting on the status of this week’s crops, also sending along recipes for cooking kohlrabi, and links to other food topics, such as recipes and about the “pros” and “cons” of genetically modified seeds, food, and animals. Go to a food market on a Saturday morning and invariably you will see a few tables with literature about agricultural issues.

The answer to our question is a resounding yes. Farmers used a combination of new tools, science-based information, innovations in fertilizers, seeds, and medicines, and every form of information and its technologies from the 1600s to the present. In each century, they were as “high-tech” and as advanced in the use of information as any other segment of society. And there is no sign that their appetite for big data, use of artificial intelligence, robotics, or digital sensors is going to decline. They continue to use these more than many other professions.

Featured image credit: Farm by Michael Pereckas. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

Recent Comments

  1. Shelly

    Great article. By the way, Do you know about Binfer? Very easy tool to transfer big data.

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