Planting in the 1930s and 1940s
March 1, 2010
There is no doubt that planting has changed drastically since the 1920s and ’30s. Farmers who remember using horses to put their seeds in the ground are now watching a new generation plant with no-till air drills hooked to air-conditioned GPS-enabled tractors. They are also seeing new fertilizers and bio-engineered seed varieties their parents wouldn’t even recognize.
Up until the turn of the 20th century farmers planted much like they had for generations – with a horse, plow and planter. Even by the 1930s, many farmers were still using horses to work their fields.
Gene Boyd, a 79-year-old retired farmer originally from west-central Missouri, remembers planting with horses. “Spring was a busy time when I was a kid,” he said. “I would walk a little over two miles to the country school in the morning and as soon as school was out I’d hurry home to work the fields with my dad until dark. We had two horse teams, which was four horses, to pull the disc and plow. We used one team for the planter.”
When Boyd was young he didn’t mind using the horses to farm because he didn’t know any different. “When I got older I helped a neighbor farm and used a tractor for the first time. After that it was hard to go back to using the horses because it took so much longer,” he said.
Tractor and implement technology exploded during the mid to late 1930s. Before the ’30s most implements were primarily made with wood. The ’30s brought new steel manufacturing advances, so steel became stronger and cheaper. Businesses began to make implements completely from steel. Rubber tires also replaced the steel tires on most tractors. Many new tractors transitioned from two-cylinder models to four- or six-cylinder machines. Some tractors even came with diesel engines and electric starts.
According to Bill Ganzel from the Wessels Living History Farm in York, Neb., one of the most significant advances of the era was the three-point hitch invented by Henry Ferguson.
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“In the 1920s, hooking up an implement, like a plow, to a tractor was a major task. Farmers had hoists and helpers and inventive ways of getting heavy implements hooked up,” Ganzel said. “With most implements, the farmer had to stop at the end of a row, get down off the tractor, raise the plow or cultivator up, make the turn, get down, drop the implement back into the soil and proceed on the next row.”
The Ferguson three-point hitch allowed farmers to simply back up to their implement, hook it up and raise it with hydraulic hoists.
Equipment wasn’t the only thing to change planting in the 1930s and ’40s. Seed and fertilizer advancements enabled farmers to grow more crops per acre.
During World War II the government looked for ways for farmers to produce more food to support the war effort.
“When the war ended, some of the technology that had been used to make bombs was redirected into growing crops better,” Ganzel said. “Fertilizer use exploded as a result. The science that produced new hybrid varieties of plants and animals contributed to the productivity increase as well. The shortages of the war years became the surpluses of peace, and farmers and the government had to figure out how to store it all.”
Boyd moved to Colorado in the late 1940s and started working for a farmer south of Strasburg. They planted dry land corn and oats in the spring using a 1938 John Deere G and an International M.
“We were a little more progressive than my dad was,” Boyd said. “We didn’t have the latest equipment – it was a long time before we even got a three-point hitch – but we used some of the new hybrid seeds and anhydrous fertilizer.”
During his 50 plus years of farming in Colorado, Boyd and others his age have seen more progression in agriculture than any other generation will likely see in their lifetime.
“People call the time in history when I grew up ‘the good old days,’ but it really wasn’t,” he said. “It was a lot of work. We didn’t have air-conditioned cabs or power steering. Modern technology makes it all so much easier than it used to be. These are really the good days.”