Popular Science Monthly/Volume 59/October 1901/Food and Land Tenure

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THE conditions of Europe in the present year compel attention to the food supply of what is called the civilized world. The principal supply of grain exported and a large part of the supply of meat are derived from the central United States, in the northern section of the Mississippi Valley.

The area of the twelve States of the northern Mississippi Valley, on which main dependence is placed, is given in the subsequent table; also the proportion of each State which is now devoted to the crops of Indian corn or maize, wheat and oats, which are the chief dependence for the grain supply of man and beast; rye, barley and buckwheat being of minor importance. In another table the proportion of the area of each State which is devoted to each of the three principal grains is indicated graphically.

Square Mile.
Wheat. Area Devoted
to Maize.
Ohio 40,760 2,220 4,514 1,659
Indiana 35,910 1,890 6,299 2,144
Illinois 56,000 2,161 11,156 5,495
Michigan 57,430 1,906 1,688 1,434
Wisconsin 54,450 1,327 1,936 3,026
Minnesota 79,205 7,665 1,505 2,598
Iowa 55,475 2,183 12,577 6,001
Nebraska 76,840 3,229 12,646 2,708
Missouri 48,735 2,356 10,084 1,408
Kansas 81,700 7,282 13,476 2,129
North Dakota 70,195 4,202 37 956
South Dakota 76,850 4,563 1,876 920
753,550 40,984 77,794 30,478

By far the larger proportion of all these States is arable land, portions of the western section being for the present uncertain in their product, because of semi-arid conditions. Ere long, however, these sections may become the most productive, irrigation on a national scale being under way.

PSM V59 D579 Grain growing states of the mississippi valley.png

Grain growing States of the Northern Mississippi Valley.


Total Area of Land of the United States Devoted to Maize (Indian Corn), Wheat and Oats. Crop of 1900.

Square Miles.
All States.
12 Mississippi
Valley States.
All other
Crop Bushels.
Maize 125,500 77,794 47,706 2,105,102,516
Wheat 66,400 40,984 25,416 522,229,505
Oats 42,754 30,478 12,276 809,125,989
Total 234,654 149,256 85,398 3,436,458,010

Crop of 1900.

Acreage. Product. Average per Acre.
Ohio 1,420,646 8,523,876 The crop of 1900 was below the average per acre of the last ten years. The crop of 1898 was 675,148,705 bushels at 15.3 bushels per acre. The crop of 1901 is officially estimated at 704,000,000 bushels and will probably be more.

In 1900 the product of the United States, 522,229,505, was substantially 20 per cent, of world's product of 2,586,025 bushels. The land devoted to wheat was 2.3 per cent, of the total area, omitting Alaska.

Indiana 1,209,755 6,411,702
Illinois 1,383,230 17,982,068
Michigan 1,219,969 9,271,764
Wisconsin 849,458 13,166,599
Minnesota 4,905,643 51,509,252
Iowa 1,397,322 21,798,223
Nebraska 2,066,825 24,801,900
Missouri 1,507,737 18,846,713
Kansas 4,660,376 82,488,655
North Dakota 2,689,023 13,176,213
South Dakota 2,920,244 20,149,684
26,230,234 288,126,649
All other States 16,265,151 234,102,856
42,495,385 522,229,505 12.29 bushels per acre.

PSM V59 D580 Acreage of the principal agriculture products of the us in 1900.png

The area of the United States (omitting Alaska), a little less than 3,000,000 square miles, is represented by the outer square. The proportion of land cultivated in all the principal crops that count for much in acreage is indicated by the smaller areas computed on the same scale. The total area in the above crops in the year 1900 numbered 353,275 square miles, or about twelve per cent, of the total area.

July, 1900.Computed by Edward Atkinson, Boston, Mass.


The proportion of land in the twelve Mississippi Valley States listed which is devoted to wheat is five and a half per cent, of their land area.

The change which has come over this section can be put before the imagination in no better way than for the writer to state that he himself witnessed and clearly remembers the war dance of the Blackhawk Indians on Boston Common, when the chiefs were sent around the country by the Government after they had been subdued in the last great Indian war, which occurred in central Illinois, at the very heart of the section with which we are dealing, and very near the present center of population of the country.

The question arises: What is the basis or fundamental principle underlying the change from occupation by the wild or ’blanket’ Indians, as they are called in our country, to the present system of intensive agriculture in a period of less than two generations? I venture to indicate freedom of restriction in custom or law in the purchase and sale and mortgaging of lands as the basis of this great change. The underlying principle, now being rapidly developed, is the gradual change from working land as a mine, subject to exhaustion, and using it as a tool or instrument of production, responding in its product to

PSM V59 D581 Upper mississippi valley states acreage of principal agriculture products in 1900.png

Total area of the United States, omitting Alaska, a fraction under 3,000,000 square miles. Area under cultivation in maize, wheat and oats in 1900, 234,(154 square miles, or a fraction under eight per cent, of the area of land and inland waters. The latter should be included in the food-producing area.

the measure of mental energy and mechanical aptitude applied to its use. These factors are generated in the free common schools now being supplemented by the addition of manual training schools in all the principal towns and cities.

Dealing in a broad and general way, all are aware that the titles to the vaster portion of the land in these States are derived from the government, mainly since the lay-out of land in sections of six hundred and forty (640) acres each, and quarter sections of one hundred and sixty (160) acres. This land has been disposed of in various ways—to railroad companies as bounties to aid in the construction of railways, and to individual purchasers and settlers under various laws. The lands granted to private individuals have been, since 1860, usually in small tracts, varying from eighty (80) to one thousand (1,000) acres, the greater share being in tracts known as quarter sections of one hundred and sixty (160) acres. This is the one always required under the Homestead and preemption laws. The lands of railroads were originally granted to them in large tracts. Some of it has been disposed of by them in large tracts to wealthy corporations and individuals and by them converted to vast farms, known usually as 'bonanza' farms. The balance has been sold or is in the process of sale, in smaller tracts on long-time credit to poor settlers. The usual method of sale is one tenth cash and the balance in nine annual payments with interest. The ordinary sale of this railroad land is a tract of one hundred and sixty (160) acres, the one on which the poor settler, as a rule, begins his career on the frontier.

The first settlement of the frontier, as now described, is accompanied with many transfers of land title, owing to the facilities of such transfer and by reason of the benefits that all parties can find in the same. Many who have acquired land under the Homestead law sell it to their neighbors or to a newcomer with ready money. They then take up a new farm under the preemption law, and use the money received for the sale of the first farm to improve the second. The divisions of the bonanza farm, the land of which is usually purchased from the railroads, combined with the results of those transferred among the original settlers, give to the farmer on the frontier an average size of from two hundred and forty (240) to three hundred and twenty (320) acres, the largest containing thousands of acres and the smallest from twenty (20) to forty (40) acres.

When first settled, these large and small farms in the grain-growing sections are always cultivated on an extensive system, largely in grain. The original occupants, whether of large or small farms, turned over the sod and planted their grain with the application of very hard labor and without fertilizers and, as a rule, without any very general comprehension of the art of agriculture. This was the necessity of the case, and it has been and is still a success under the conditions of the frontier. Under these conditions a vast body of pioneers have become prosperous, some of them attaining large wealth, and with their wealth buying out their less successful neighbors and adding to the area of the great farms. That phase has nearly passed by in the great Mississippi Valley and in the States named. With the passage of years, in every part of these twelve States, this extensive system of cultivation comes to an end and the intensive system of working the land in various crops takes its place. With this change the large bonanza farms are broken up and the smaller farm becomes the rule. This change is a progressive one, as can be seen by the average size of farms in the twelve States. In 1890, this was 86 acres in Michigan, 93 in Ohio, 103 in Indiana, 115 in Wisconsin, 127 in Illinois, 139 in Missouri, 151 in Iowa, 160 in Minnesota, 181 in Kansas, 190 in Nebraska, 237 in South Dakota and 277 in North Dakota. Ohio and Michigan have been the longest settled, while the two Dakotas are not yet wholly occupied by farmers.

On the frontier, the wild land from the government has a value of $1.35 per acre. The railroad grant lands have been usually purchased by farmers at from $4 to $7 per acre and are now being sold at these figures. The average value of farms with improvements in the old settled States, such as Ohio, is not far from $50 per acre. The difference measures the improvements made to the land. To open up new land and make these improvements requires capital. The original settlers, being without capital, were under the necessity of securing credit, either from the railroad companies from whom they purchased the land or from money lenders; hence there grew up in these western States a very extensive system of borrowing on mortgages, beneficial both to borrower and lender, until the speculative mortgage companies promoted the taking up of great areas of land in the semiarid regions, negotiating mortgages thereon, and thus brought disaster to many lenders, culminating in bankruptcy of many mortgage companies.

The average term of mortgages made for land improvements, as above outlined, has been in the past from three to nine years, and that period of time has usually, except in the semi-arid lands, sufficed to enable the settlers to pay off their debts and to acquire valuable farms from their neighbors.

These figures are sustained by the judgment of the experts now occupied in compiling the census of the year 1900, in which the departments of agriculture and of wealth, debt and taxation are under the supervision of the most competent man in the United States, Mr. L. G. Powers.

It will be plain to any Englishman that unless this land had been free land, bought, sold and conveyed with the least amount of expense and difficulty, and free of any conditions as to the kind of crop to be planted or the disposal of the product, no such great economic revolution could have occurred. Yet the conveyance of land is now being made more simple than ever before by the adoption, in State after State, of a reform which we owe to our intelligent and progressive kindred in Australasia, the registry of titles known as the Torrens System, in place of the registry of deeds. Under this system conveyance of a title to land under absolutely safe conditions has become as simple and as easy as an assignment of a note of hand or a share of stock.

Under these conditions in these and other States 5,700,000 farmers are now working land either as owners or tenants, the only limit in recent years to a further expansion of crops having been the lack of farm laborers. At the present time (July 9th) farm laborers are in most urgent demand to harvest the great crop of wheat, without any sufficient supply.

During the last decade there has been in these States a small lessening in the average area of the farm, coupled with a moderate increase in the number of tenants. The owners have increased faster than the agricultural population, and the greater increase in the number of tenants has been recruited from former farm laborers or from emigrants. Landlordism in the sense of ownership of very large areas to be worked permanently by tenants, covers a very small part of this whole area. It is inconsistent with the whole spirit of the people and will never assume any great importance.

In the new States, such as Minnesota and the Dakotas, it is still possible to buy cheap land from the railroad, from large timber companies and from the State and general government, and to repeat the old process of a poor man acquiring a good farm free from debt in from three to ten years by the aid of a small mortgage loan or the credit of the land companies. In the older settled communities, with land worth on an average from $40 to $50 per acre and in many cases selling for $100 per acre, the road to farm ownership for the poor man is somewhat different. He must as a laborer have acquired money enough to become a farm tenant and as a tenant have obtained sufficient capital to make a reasonable payment on the purchase price of the farm. This gradual rise of a farm laborer to farm ownership through farm tenancy is being witnessed all over the States to which I have referred. Mortgage assists, as on the frontier, in helping the men with small capital to control farms worth more than their resources over and above their liabilities. These men, rising in the older settled States to farm ownership, through farm tenancy and by the aid of mortgage loans, in a large measure succeed in paying off their debts as does the settler on the frontier. With a large debt due on the more valuable farms, it may require a longer time, but the end is reasonably sure with those of any business sagacity.

Another class of farm tenants in America is composed of the children of the farm owners who cultivate their fathers' lands as tenants until they succeed them as owners. No farm laborer who is not a good farmer succeeds in rising, and the sons of wealthy land owners, without good management, often lose all their inherited wealth. Freedom to buy and sell and manage land kills off the incompetent, and gives the field to the competent, be he poor or rich. This freedom of land sales prevents the tenant or owner from adopting methods formerly described by Governor Wise of Virginia, as that of slavery, when he said that 'the white men skinned the nigger and the nigger skinned the land' There is an element of, skinning in every system relating to land not born of perfect freedom. Perfect freedom in the purchase and rental of American land leads to constant improvement.

Under the freedom of sale which prevails in the United States, with the facility of mortgage loans which permits the poor man to use the capital of the rich to secure for himself a farm, there will always be a large mortgage debt in the rural sections of the United States. That debt marks, as a rule, the upward movement of the poor laborer on the road of farm ownership. One class of men incur debt for land purchased or for improvements, and pay off the same, and as they retire in old age another and younger set repeat the process of rising to independence by the same road. The relative number of those who have attained their goal and of those on the way may be seen by the following figures:

Of the farms in the twelve States named, about sixty to sixty-five per cent, are now free from mortgage debt, and thirty-five to forty per cent, are mortgaged. The debt on the mortgaged farms does not exceed thirty-five per cent, of their value, and the total mortgage debt of the States is not in excess of about twelve to fifteen per cent, of the whole farm value.

Under these conditions the area of land devoted to the several grain crops diminishes in ratio to that given to other crops, varied farming taking the place of the all-wheat or all-corn system. But by the introduction of intensive farming there is a steady improvement and increase in the quantity and the quality of the crops derived from a given area of soil. The wheat needed for home use will keep even with population for many years without any increase in area.

The most potent agency in this revolution in agriculture may be but little known in Europe, especially in England. I refer to the so-called Agricultural Experiment Stations, which have grown in a rather singular manner, of which no very definite record has yet been given. The general government appropriates annually $720,000, and the State governments $440,000, more or less, in addition, to be expended by the Agricultural Experiment Stations, under the general supervision of a special department in the Department of Agriculture, of which Professor A. C. True is now the director. But the general government has no very definite control over the expenditure of this money. The stations are established by the several States. They are now thirty-six in number—one in nearly every State; two or three in some of them. Each one is under the direction of a trained student of the science of dealing with land as an instrument or tool of production. The employees are all thoroughbred experts, graduates of universities, colleges or technical schools. A more devoted set of men cannot be found in the whole country. Their influence is raising the standard of farming in almost every State. One of the great railway promoters in the Northwest long since realized the importance of this matter, and in order to promote the interests of his railroad he made arrangements with every town throughout the great State near the line to send two men every year to the capital, where the Agricultural College and Experiment Station were situated. He gave them a free pass, liberty to remain four days, the State giving them a banquet—the only condition being that one day out of the four should be devoted to the study of the work of the Agricultural Experiment Station; and for a number of years one thousand (1,000) to fifteeen hundred (1,500) men enjoyed this benefit every year.

Each Experiment Station devotes itself to the special conditions of the State in which it is placed. For instance, in Minnesota the whole standard of wheat cultivation and of dairy product has been raised to a very high point. In Michigan the market value of a large product of butter has been raised to a more profitable point by improvement in stock, in the establishment of creameries, and in other ways. The application of the bacterium of June butter in the creameries has become common.

Professor Kohn, who made this discovery at the Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, in 1893, has established a bacterium factory which, at the last advices known to me, supplied one hundred and fifty (150) creameries with the ferment.

In Kansas attention has been given to the improvement in the quality of maize or Indian corn. The ordinary maize is deficient in the nitrogen or protein elements as compared to the starch and fats. Varieties have been bred, bringing maize even with wheat in the protein element, which may end in making maize as complete a food as either wheat or oatmeal.

In the South the greatest attention is given to renovating plants of the leguminous type—beans, peas, alfalfa and others. The slave-stricken lands are being regenerated, and gradually but slowly stock suited to the climate and conditions of the Atlantic cotton States is being introduced.

Of course all these changes imply the use of fertilizers in larger and larger measure. That need is being met. The vast deposits of phosphatic material in Kentucky, Tennessee, Florida and the Carolinas, coupled with the use of the ground slag from basic steel furnaces, give an assurance of an abundant supply of that necessary element for all time to come.

The discovery of the function of the bacteria attached to the stalks of leguminous plants, dissociating the nitrogen of the atmosphere and converting it through the plant to the renovation of the soil, coupled with artificial sources, give assurance of adequate supply of that necessary element, while discoveries in science promise yet greater abundance in the conversion of the secondary products of gas plants to fertilizers.

The last element which is necessary, potash, of course exists in great abundance throughout many sections of the country, but the solubility of potash capable of being assimilated by plants and the cost of deriving it from its original source in the rocks, have rendered the country for the time being largely dependent on the Stassfurt Mines of Saxony, where the existence of a pan underlying the salt in which the potash has accumulated, has rendered that place the source of this necessary element in fertilizers at the lowest cost. It is, however, hardly to be doubted that in the great range of alkali soils and deserts extending from British Columbia around the circle far into Texas, deposits of potash will soon be discovered which can be worked. Permanent potash springs are very numerous, and in the arid country it may be assumed that while the potash may have leached down to a moderate distance, it has not been carried away. A strong company, with abundant capital, under competent engineers, has lately been organized for following the surface indications of potash by boring at many points.

In a broad and general way it may be safely affirmed that the great farming States of the Mississippi Valley which have been named, will produce this year within a fraction of all the wheat now required for the consumption of the people of the United States, and that by improvement in the methods of agriculture their product will keep even with the increase of population without calling for more land. Outside this area are vast sections from which the quantity of wheat now available for export may be derived. In these sections the intensive system has not yet taken the place of the former methods of cultivation. It may be safely affirmed that Montana, Washington, Oregon, California and other sections of the Northwest and of the Pacific coast, can produce all the wheat that Europe can possibly pay for during the present generation. It is only a question of price. Our crop now being marketed officially estimated at 704,000,000 is probably 750,000,000 bushels or about 95,000,000 quarters. The prevailing drought did not come until the winter wheat was harvested and the spring wheat fairly secure; it will reduce the com or maize crop. At a dollar a bushel or at thirty-two shillings per quarter in Mark Lane, we could add 20,000,000 quarters in a year or two if we had the farm laborers to do the work not yet done by machinery.

Again, although the cotton States of the Atlantic coast will not be great producers of grain, especially of wheat, yet in the Southwest—in Texas, Oklahoma, the Indian Territory and Louisiana—we could readily produce the entire wheat crop of the United States upon unoccupied land, whenever labor and capital can be found sufficient to develop the product. As our country people say, a dollar a bushel would fetch it. Some of the best hard or macaroni wheat in the world is already produced in this section.

I have called the attention of economists to the basis of this development of agriculture, namely, what may be called the free land tenure established in the United States. An outsider should deal with the conditions of other countries with great caution, but in the study which I have given to the subject it has seemed to me very plain that the feudal land system of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland had come to its necessary end, witnessed by the present movement for the practical confiscation of land titles in Ireland. One may ask, what would be the potential of the land of the United Kingdom in the production of food for its own population, if the purchase and sale of land were as free as it is in the United States?

Again, it appears to an outsider as if the revulsion from the feudal system in France and large parts of Germany, where the land is cut up in little patches, had also failed in developing the potential of the soil, the application of modern mechanism to its full effect being rendered impossible by the great subdivision of the soil.

You will remark that the area of the United States, omitting Alaska, covers three million (3,000,000) square miles; the habitable part of Canada may be computed at over two million (2,000,000), to which we may add Mexico, giving in all, say over five million (5,000,000) square miles, of which more than one-half is available for cultivation. At nine thousand (9,000) to ten thousand (10,000) bushels to a square mile, which is rather a low standard of intelligent cultivation, ten (10) per cent, of this area, or two hundred and fifty thousand (250,000) square miles, would yield about the present wheat crop of the world. I think we could spare that area without missing it, even within the limits of the United States, if we could make a contract for a term of years at thirty-two (32) shillings a quarter in London for all the wheat Europe could possibly buy.

Even if this forecast be considered visionary, it may be surely held that the United States can supply for many years to come the entire deficiency in the wheat crop of the United Kingdom, twenty-five million (25,000,000) to thirty million (30,000,000) quarters a year, probably by improvement in intensive farming, without adding materially to the land which may be devoted to the wheat crop.

In this paper I have given the details of the grain problem. Cotton comes next in importance, especially to the people of Great Britain. The all-cotton, old plantation system is extinct. A mere fraction of the present cotton crop is growing in the old way; almost the whole comes from the small farmers, black as well as white. The tenant system was almost universally adopted in the process of reconstruction; improvement in agriculture is slow but sure. The dream of the freedman was forty acres and a mule, and in fact great numbers are attaining that end.

For many years after the end of the Civil War the cotton States still depended upon the North for hay and upon the West for corn and meat. There is probably no great force of laborers in the world who can fully subsist at so low a cost as the Southern negroes. 'Hog and hominy,' as it is called, bacon and cracked corn, are their choice above all other kinds of food. On this ration, coupled with such fruits and vegetables as they can secure, they are content. A peck of corn meal, three and one-half pounds of bacon and a quart of molasses or sorghum syrup is the customary ration for one week, costing six to nine cents a day. All that is changing. The intelligent farmers now produce their own bread and meat; some of them in excess. They are developing leguminous plants—pea vines, beans, alfalfa, crimson clover and the like; gradually introducing stock, and soon to fold sheep upon the cotton fields, to the renovation of the soil.

The very large proportionate number of tenants which has been disclosed by the former census and will be yet more marked in the present census is mainly the result of the changing conditions in the cotton States; a passing phase in the South, as it is in the West; not of long duration, and not implying any permanent condition of landlordism.

In fact, in conclusion it may be dogmatically stated that both wheat and cotton are becoming the excess, surplus or money crops of farmers whose products otherwise suffice to sustain the farm. It is therefore difficult to measure the exact cost of raising wheat. It has been produced at less than one shilling per bushel, including use and repairs of machinery and interest thereon, but not including any charge for the rental of land, which forms a part of the income or profit of the farmer. It may be dogmatically affirmed that so long as the farmer in the Mississippi grain-growing States can secure to his own use and enjoyment one cent a pound, sixty cents a bushel, four dollars and eighty cents, or twenty shillings a quarter, the present average product of wheat will be maintained, subject to variation in quantity according to the season. At seventy cents a bushel new land will be put under cultivation in wheat to any extent of the demand, and capital will be found. The difficulty will be to procure even the necessary labor still required, notwithstanding the increasing use of machinery and the common practice of small farmers in combining for the ownership of mowers and reapers or in contracting for the harvest.

No subject of greater importance could be brought before the English-speaking people; none of greater weight in maintaining our interdependence with our kin beyond the seas. The right comprehension of this problem will give assurance of peace, good-will and plenty.

It may be interesting to call your attention to the fact that the Pilgrim Fathers spent several years in Holland before they migrated to New England. The larger part both of Pilgrims and Puritans came from the southeastern counties of England, where institutions had been greatly modified by Dutch, Flemish and Huguenot immigrants. The Dutch themselves settled New York and other colonies. We derive our common schools, our toleration of religion, our welcome to invention and our free division of land chiefly from the Dutch, rather than from our English ancestors. It is true that the Puritans were intolerant and that the Dutch attempted to establish large manors in the State of New York, under patroons, so-called; but the more liberal tendencies of the Pilgrims in New England, the Quakers in Pennsylvania, the Baptists of Rhode Island, the Dutch in New York and the Catholics in Maryland overcame the intolerance of the Puritans, while the free system of land holding also displaced all other tenures.

  1. Read at the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Glasgow, September 11-19.