Mechanized agriculture is the process of using agricultural machinery to mechanize the work of agriculture, greatly increasing farm worker productivity. In modern times, powered machinery has replaced many jobs formerly carried out by men or animals such as oxen, horses and mules.
The history of agriculture contains many examples of tool use, but only in recent time has the high rate of machine use been at such a level.
The first pervasive mechanization of agriculture came with the introduction of the plough, usually powered by animals. It was invented in ancient Mesopotamia.
Current mechanized agriculture includes the use of Tractors, trucks, combine harvesters, airplanes (crop dusters), helicopters, and other vehicles. Modern farms even sometimes use computers in conjunction with satellite imagery and GPS guidance to increase yields.
Mechanization was one of the factors responsible for urbanization and industrial economies. Besides improving production efficiency, mechanization encourages large scale production and improves the quality of farm produce. On the other hand, it displaces unskilled farm labor, causes environmental pollution, deforestation and erosion.
Jethro Tull's seed drill (ca. 1701) was a mechanical seed spacing and depth placing device that increased crop yields and saved seed. It was an important factor in the British Agricultural Revolution.
Since the beginning of agriculture threshing was done by hand with a flail, requiring a great deal of labor. The threshing machine, which was invented in 1794 but not widely used for several more decades, simplified the operation and allowed the use of animal power. Before the invention of the grain cradle (ca. 1790) an able bodied laborer could reap about one quarter acre of wheat in a day using a sickle. It was estimated that for each of Cyrus McCormick's horse pulled reapers (ca. 1830s) freed up five men for military service in the U.S. Civil War. Later innovations included raking and binding machines. By 1890 two men and two horses could cut, rake and bind 20 acres of wheat per day.
In the 1880s the reaper and threshing machine were combined into the combine harvester. These machines required large teams of horses or mules to pull. Steam power was applied to threshing machines in the late 19th century. There were steam engines that moved around on wheels under their own power for supplying temporary power to stationary threshing machines. These were called road engines, and Henry Ford seeing one as a boy was inspired to build an automobile.
With internal combustion came the first modern tractors in the early 1900s, becoming more popular after the Fordson tractor (ca. 1917). At first reapers and combine harvesters were pulled by tractors, but in the 1930s self powered combines were developed. (Link to a chapter on agricultural mechanization in the 20th Century at reference)
Advertising for motorized equipment in farm journals during this era did its best to compete against horse-drawn methods with economic arguments, extolling common themes such as that a tractor "eats only when it works", that one tractor could replace many horses, and that mechanization could allow one man to get more work done per day than he ever had before. The horse population in the U.S. began to decline in the 1920s after the conversion of agriculture and transportation to internal combustion. Peak tractor sales in the U.S. were around 1950. In addition to saving labor, this freed up much land previously used for supporting draft animals. The greatest period of growth in agricultural productivity in the U.S. was from the 1940s to the 1970s, during which time agriculture was benefiting from internal combustion powered tractors and combine harvesters, chemical fertilizers and the green revolution.
Current status of future applications
Asparagus are presently harvested by hand with labor costs at 71% of production costs and 44% of selling costs. Asparagus is a difficult crop to harvest since each spear matures at a different speed making it difficult to achieve a uniform harvest. A prototype asparagus harvesting machine - using a light-beam sensor to identify the taller spears - is expected to soon be available for commercial use.
As of 2010, approximately 10% of the processing orange acreage in Florida is harvested mechanically. Mechanization has progressed slowly due to the uncertainty of future economic benefits due to competition from Brazil and the transitory damage to orange trees when they are harvested.
Strawberries are a high cost-high value crop with the economics supporting mechanization (In 2005, picking and hauling costs were estimated at $594 per ton or 51% of the total grower cost); however, the delicate nature of fruit make it an unlikely candidate for mechanization in the near future.
Mechanical harvesting of tomatoes started in 1965 and as of 2010, nearly all processing tomatoes are mechanically harvested. 95% of the U.S. processed tomato crop is produced in California. Although fresh market tomatoes have substantial hand harvesting costs (in 2007, the costs of hand picking and hauling were $86 per ton which is 19% of total grower cost), packing and selling costs were more of a concern (at 44% of total grower cost) making it likely that cost saving efforts would be applied there.
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- Washington State University Extension - School of Economic Sciences: "Asparagus Production Economics" December 8, 2010
- Vegetable Growers News: "Mechanical Asparagus Harvester Almost a Reality" December 21, 2009
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- U. S. Produce Industry and Labor: Facing the Future in a Global Industry By Linda Calvin retrieved September 28, 2013