By Kristin Wypiszynski
One element of human life that has had an effect on our environment is agriculture. We depend on agriculture for our survival and are constantly trying to improve yields, fertilizer, pesticides, etc. Specifically, our advancement in agricultural machinery has allowed our species to increase our farming efficiency. One object that helps represent how humans impacted the environment is the tractor. Through the implementation of the tractor as common day farming machinery, the agricultural industry has forever changed and continues to expand our touch on the environment.
Farming in Europe and America in the late nineteenth century was ruled by the technology of a horse drawn plow until the invention of the tractor. Horses were the power that pulled plows through the ground. However, new technology was expanding our means of attaining power. In 1892, the first gasoline-powered tractor was introduced to the state of Iowa (Trautmann). The original tractors were too expensive for the common day farmer to purchase. Not until the 1920s did tractors become immensely popular among the common day farmer (Crotty). The high cost in the original tractors was due to their immense size and use unneeded use of metals. One maker of a line of tractors was the company Ford and Son. Pictured above is one of the earliest Fordson tractors, Model F, which was largely popular in America in the 1920s (Crotty). The Fordson tractors were revolutionary because they conserved space and did not use as many parts as the initial larger tractors (Crotty). In the Fordson tractor, the engine, transmission, and axle housings were all fastened together to form the rudimentary structure of the tractor (Crotty). The less parts put onto the tractor, the less expensive it was, and therefore more affordable for the average farmer (Crotty). These tractors could do the work of 17 men and 50 horses resulting in a vastly changed industry.
Now, farmers could do more work with less human labor, no animals, and not have to take breaks. In an interview with Herbert Heine, a farmer born in 1921 in Nebraska, he explains that tractors could hook up many different types of machineries so that they could “plow, plant, and harvest more acres with fewer workers” (Reinhardt). In addition, he discusses how with horses, they would tire out and would have to take a noon rest. With the addition of tractors, Herbert and his family had no need for a break and “[they] farmed more on account of it” (Reinhardt). Even though most farmers probably took breaks, the breaks lasted just as long as they needed to recover, not the animals. Another farmer born in 1912, Kenneth Jackson, explains how animals replaced by the machine were a large improvement. Instead of harvesting hay to keep the horses fed, a farmer could produce another crop in that field that he could sell, adding to his profit (Jackson).
An improvement on farming technology meant an increased profit for farmers, higher yields, and more cultivated land. These positive benefits were short lived in the 1920s because as the 30s rolled around, the Dust Bowl hit the Great Plains of American soil (Thompson). Tractors were not the sole source of the dust bowl. In reality, they only represent part of the responsibility (Thompson). First, there were a few years of draught in the early 1930s that started the cycle (Thompson). The Great Plains are an area with little rain fall, light top soil, and high winds (Thompson). The grass on the land was used a sort of anchor when the strong winds would blow (Thompson). The grass roots were strong enough to keep all dirt and plants on the ground. After cultivation of these areas, winds easily picked up lose topsoil and would result in “Black Blizzards,” large dust clouds (Thompson). The dust blew across the country and covered farms everywhere, destroying many of the crops (Thompson). A major contributor to the Dust Bowl was the farming techniques used in the 19th and early 20th centuries (Thompson). During WWI, farmers were enticed by the raising prices of grain and sought to plow new lands that happened to be covered with natural grass (Thompson). The advanced technology of the tractor allowed them to increase this process at a much higher rate, contributing to the amount of devastation that the Dust Bowl had brought (Thompson).
In response to the devastation of the Dust Bowl, in 1935 Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal organized the Soil Conservation Service (Trautmann). This program was responsible for teacher farmer new agricultural techniques that would help reclaim the damaged land (Trautmann). Some of these methods included contour plowing, terracing, and strip-cropping in an attempt to reduce runoff and erosion (Trautmann). Also, Wind Breaks were planted along fields in order to stop the strong winds from picking up the topsoil (Trautmann). Lastly, this program taught farmers different tillage methods that helped reduce exposed soils (Trautmann). This effort did help and fields were used again, but they were used for the human benefit of agricultural gains, not restored to prairieland.
The alteration of soils by the use of tractors had, has, and will continue to effect the environment (Trautmann). One major consequence from tractor plowing is soil erosion. The process of erosion removes topsoils that are ample in organic matter and plant nutrients (Trautmann). Tractors contribute to the process by plowing up land and removing topsoil. Erosion causes depletion of the organic matter helps retain water and nutrients in the root zone (Trautmann). In addition, eroded soil negatively affects water reservoirs when it becomes runoff (Trautmann). Streams, rivers and lakes are clogged by eroded soil and this then increases flooding and destruction of habitation for fish and other water life (Trautmann). It would be very helpful if topsoils were not hard to reproduce. However, it takes up to 300 years for natural creation of topsoil (Trautmann). Therefore, when the topsoil is removed, it is basically irreplaceable. Erosion does vary from field to field (Trautmann). Depending on the soil type, slope of the field, the fields’ drainage patterns and crop management practices, erosion may be very common or very rare in a field (Trautmann). Globally, America has ten times the amount of soil erosion as is naturally replenished (Trautmann).
Tractors also contribute to climate change (Stein). Tractor engines emit CO2 that contributes to the rising temperatures of our world that then has its own impact on the environment (Stein). Not all of climate change is in result to the use of tractors, but they are a contributor to our world’s rising temperatures. Some climate change can work out positively by bringing milder winters to areas with harsh ones and longer growing seasons in areas in need of such (Stein). However, mainly climate change results in negative effects (Stein). In these cases, the poor are typically the victims of this harm because they are those who lack the resources to properly respond to climate change (Stein). For example, one of the most poor nations, Bangladesh, is projected to lose 17.5% of its land is the seal level rises to about 1 meter higher (Stein). If this happens, millions of people will be displaced in Bangladesh (Stein). In addition, many islands in the Indian Ocean and South Pacific may get swallowed up completely if the sea level is to rise (Stein).
Agriculture is a necessity of life for humans. There is no way that it could be cut out of our lives and result in no negative repercussions. Farming technology, such as the tractor, has enabled our species to exploit the land at a faster rate than ever before. If not regulated, disasters such as the occurrence of the dust bowl rake our community. Using fewer tractors is not the only way to cut back on CO2 emissions, but it would help the process. Proper farming techniques help a great deal in the cut back of erosion but the only way that CO2 emissions can cut back are if we use tractors less. This object is a key resource in common day agriculture that we cannot afford to get rid of and yet our environment then has to take the toll. The Anthropocene is demonstrated through this man-made object, its exploitation of the land, and the way it affects our environment.
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