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Paul W. Rhode photo

The Dramatic Rise in Agricultural Productivity in the US during the Twentieth Century: Disentangling the Roles of Technological Changed, Government Policy, and Climate

a PSC Research Project

Investigator:   Paul W. Rhode

Dramatic increases in the productivity of agriculture over the past century have raised standards of living while allowing the transfer of labor out of agriculture into other productive activities. At the same time, agricultural policies in many nations have been a source of tension in international trade negotiations and have slowed the integration of global markets. Recently, fears of global warming and have led to increased interest in the influence of climate and weather on food production.

Our goal is to analyze with county level data the relative importance of climate, technological change, and government policy in influencing the rise in total factor productivity, yield per acre, and farm values over the course of the twentieth century. We propose to develop panel sets for over 3000 counties in the United States covering the period from 1879 through 2002. Most of the agricultural census information for the period after 1950 and before 1920 has already been loaded into data sets by grant contractor Michael Haines and others at the ICPSR. We plan to fill the gaps in census coverage for the years 1924, 1929, 1934, 1939, and 1944 and then to combine the census cross-sections into a panel using consistently defined data across time. We also plan to computerize annual information for counties on yields per acre in many states for the period prior to 1950.

One goal for the 120-year long panel is to examine the impact of changes in climate and weather. In the process we will also examine the impact of spending on research and development at the national, state, and local level, increased human capital for farmers, new technologies, and measures of farm programs. A significant part of our efforts will be devoted to studying the period between 1910 and 1950, when the U.S. experienced a sharp rise in the level and growth rate in productivity, which has been the goal of modern policies toward agriculture in lesser developed countries. After several decades of slow growth in total factor productivity, the United States achieved this goal during the period from 1929 through 1948, when total factor productivity and yields per acre in the United States nearly doubled and the long term path of productivity turned sharply upward.

Highly disaggregated analysis of the period is necessary because there was tremendous change on many fronts. Roosevelt’s New Deal introduced the acreage reductions, nonrecourse crop loans, and loan programs that are the bedrock of modern farm policy. This was a key period for the diffusion of such technologies as paved roads, automobiles, trucks, tractors, electricity, high school education, electronic communication, and information on new agricultural technologies. Improved seeds and fertilizers were developed for many crops. Finally, the period included numerous droughts, floods, and the hottest decade on record We focus on the United States for several reasons. First, the U.S. has been a world leader in the production of the 58 most important crops and has conducted censuses that describe inputs and outputs in a relatively consistent fashion at the county level. Second, our focus is on measuring the influence of the roles of climate, advances in knowledge, and government regulations. The U.S. is one of the few large and diverse areas in the world that did not experience either major destruction during wars or violent regime changes that led to property reforms in the 20th century. Such events have dramatic effects on farm productivity in ways that make it difficult to parse out the importance of changes in technology, regulation, and weather. Further, in terms of gaining ideas of what might work best for stimulating productivity in current lesser developed countries, many parts of the U.S. in 1910 through 1950 offers an environment in terms of access to roads, autos, electricity, farm machinery, and flows of information looks like the situations in many parts of the lesser developed rural parts of the world today.

The final panel data sets collected will provide a public good for social scientists because they can be used to study a wide variety of socio-economic issues in rural areas, including shifts in land ownership, migration, income, and the experiences of African-Americans. The data we collect will also be useful to international scholars who seek to make comparisons with the U.S. experience. In a world where hunger and climate change are significant issues, the research proposed offers opportunities to perform the type of long term analysis needed to understand the impact of new government programs, new technologies, and shifts in climate on agricultural production.

Funding Period: 09/15/2009 to 08/31/2013

Country of Focus: USA

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