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A large red piece of farm equipment moves through a field of brown plantsSoybean Harvesting / Photo courtesy of the United Soybean Board


Farmers have only a narrow window of opportunity to harvest their crops. For Michigan soybean growers, that window generally runs from the end of September through November, but is impacted yearly by weather events. By that point in the season, the plant is fully mature and has lost most of its leaves, and only the stalk and pods (with three to four beans per pod) stand in the field (R8 Growth Stage). The seeds are brown and hard at this point, and bean moisture content is 13-15%.

Close-up shot of brown plants with pods entangled in the tines of agricultural machinery in a field
A Close-Up of the Modern Soybean Harvesting Process / Photo courtesy of the United Soybean Board

Harvesting soybeans—to cut the stalk, separate the bean from the pod, clean the bean, and store it until moved from harvester to wagon or truck—requires a multifunctional machine. Soybean growers benefitted from around a century of experimentation with specialized harvest machines when it came time for them to look for the best machine for the job. Farmers need machines that work, and different machines to harvest different crops. The Henry Ford has some of the earliest of these mechanical innovations, each suited to a specific crop—the Ambler mowing machine for hay, models of the Hussey and McCormick reapers for grains, and the Manny combined mower and reaper (one machine adaptable for both crops).

These early-19th-century innovations represented solutions to the problem of how to reduce human labor costs. Farm families often could not meet labor demand during harvest seasons. Too little labor meant lost crops, and lost crops made it difficult for farmers to feed their livestock (hay) or earn income from market crops (grain). Hiring labor was expensive, and even more expensive during peak demand at harvest time.

A century passed between the 1830s, when mechanical reapers and mowing machines first became viable, and the 1930s, when the first Allis-Chalmers All-Crop Harvester entered Michigan soybean fields.

Black-and-white photo of man driving a tractor with large equipment attachment behind it through a field
Man Driving an Allis-Chalmers Tractor Pulling an Allis-Chalmers All-Crop Harvester at Michigan and Southfield Roads, Dearborn, Michigan, October 1936 / THF286727

The Crop


Michigan growers raised different types of beans during the early 20th century. Some raised bush beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), green beans that they harvested by hand when the pod reached the R5 growth stage and seeds had just begun to develop. Wholesale dealers distributed this perishable commodity to grocery stores while processors turned the bush beans into canned green beans. Others raised large fields of beans on contract with the H.J. Heinz Co. After the beans were fully matured and dry, growers harvested the crop by hand, then hauled the crop to a threshing machine that separated the beans from the pods and stems. Employees at Heinz processing plants continued the handwork, sorting beans from debris. Product advertising emphasized this attention to detail that yielded a quality food product.

A different type of bean—the “soy bean” (or soybean, Glycine max)—became increasingly apparent in southeast Michigan during the 1930s. Interest in this new cash crop grew apace with Henry Ford’s investment in soybean research. Scientists at work in the chemical laboratory that Ford built in Greenfield Village confirmed that soybeans had potential as a domestic source for various industrial products. Industrial demand in the region caused growers to seek a harvester suitable to the task.

Close-up of brown, slightly hairy pods on a plant against a blue sky
Soybean Pods Ready for Harvesting / Photo courtesy of the United Soybean Board

Some farmers raised seed crops to meet growing demand for the new cash crop. This specialized cultivation required careful harvesting, as described in “Soy Bean Seed Production in Michigan” (1936). Others raised crops to meet the growing demand for the new industrial raw material. The Ford Village Industries complex in Saline, Michigan, opened in 1938. A press release issued by Ford Motor Company in July 1938 indicated that 700 farmers planted 22,588 acres of soybeans processed at the Saline facility. Ford processing capacity increased as the soybean processing plant at the Rouge Plant began operations around 1942.

Ready for the Harvest: The Allis-Chambers All-Crop


Farmers needed mechanical harvesters to ensure that they delivered a prime crop to Ford Motor Company. Henry Ford thus took an interest in this technology. Allis-Chalmers released its All-Crop 60 harvester in 1935, designed to operate off a tractor big enough to pull a double-bottom plow and powered by the tractor’s power take-off. The “60” represented the width in inches of the swath cut by the harvester. Ford tested the capability of the Allis-Chalmers All-Crop Harvester on a Ford Farms soybean crop in October 1936. By that time, Allis-Chalmers had sold 8,200 of the machines.

The engineer who took a leading role in the machine’s development was Charles J. Scranton, Jr. He began his career as a draftsman at Avery Company, a Peoria, Illinois, company noted for steam traction engines, threshers, and other farm equipment that went bankrupt in 1923. Scranton, as an assignee to a successor company, the Avery Power Machinery Co., secured several patents for improvements to threshers during the late 1920s.

Scranton joined Allis-Chalmers by working at the LaPorte, Indiana, location by 1934. Over 30 years, he secured around 40 patents, all focused on harvesting machinery. The All-Crop marked a crowning achievement because it suited the needs of farmers operating on a smaller scale and growing different cash crops, including soybeans, clover, milo, and other grains.

Ford featured the Allis-Chalmers All-Crop Harvester in early promotional photographs of the Ford tractor with the “Ferguson System,” the Ford-Ferguson 9N, released in 1939. This marked a ringing endorsement from the industrialist who launched soybeans as a cash crop in Michigan.

Black-and-white photo of a person riding a tractor through a field, pulling agricultural equipment containing crops behind it
A Ford-Ferguson Model 9N Tractor Pulling an Allis-Chalmers “All-Crop” Harvester, Macon, Michigan, November 1939 / THF701486

Black-and-white photo of person on tractor pulling a piece of agricultural equipment behind them through a field
Rear view of the Allis-Chalmers “All-Crop” Harvester, pulled by a Ford-Ferguson Model 9N Tractor, Macon, Michigan, November 1939 / THF701489

More Crop in the Hopper


As soybean acreage increased across the Midwest after World War II, farm implement companies continued to innovate. The Allis-Chalmers All-Crop was well suited to smaller scale farmers growing a variety of crops, but the scale of production increased dramatically during the 1950s as farmers in the midwestern Corn Belt shifted toward monoculture, e.g., corn, a crop heavily dependent on nitrogen, and soybeans, a legume that helps retain nitrogen in the soil. Farmers saw this combination as a strategy to help reduce input costs for synthetic and nitrogen-rich fertilizers.

Illinois-based agricultural implement manufacturer Deere & Company gained an advantage in 1954 when the company introduced an attachment that farmers could install on their combine harvesters to harvest corn. They could harvest their bean crop by switching out that attachment with a four- or five-bat (or horizontal bar) reel mechanism that drew the bean crop into the cutting head. Interchangeable front-end attachments became an industry standard.

Large yellow piece of agricultural equipment with large tines at front below a cab, in a large space with wooden floor and other agricultural equipment
The New Holland TR70 Axial Flow Combine, 1975, with Corn Attachment, on Exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation / THF57471

The New Holland TR70 Axial Flow combine in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation is installed with the corn harvester attachment. Farmers could harvest four rows of corn in one pass through the field with this head. To harvest soybeans, they installed a different attachment to the front end, a “pickup reel,” as illustrated below in a New Holland TR70 product catalog. The promotional literature urged farmers to purchase a floating “cutterbar” and a “robot header height control” to harvest most efficiently.

Page with text and image of yellow agricultural equipment with reel in front harvesting a crop in a field
Sperry Rand Corporation - Sperry New Holland Division Catalog, "TR70 Twin Rotor Combine," 1977, Page 10 Detail / THF298867

Soybean acreage increased rapidly from the late 1970s into the 1980s. This sustained research in and development of combines suitable to cutting, threshing, and cleaning soybean crops (along with corn and other smaller grains).

Large blue and yellow piece of agricultural equipment harvesting crops in a field
Ford New Holland Agricultural Equipment, 1985, Detail / THF277369

For additional information:

“Charles Scranton Dies; Was Engineer,” Indianapolis Star, 27 July 1980, pg. 14, sec. 3.

Swinford, Norm. Allis-Chalmers Farm Equipment, 1914-1985. American Society of Agricultural Engineers, 1994.

U.S. Patent and Trademark Office records include more than 40 patents secured by Scranton during his work with Allis-Chalmers and at least three from his years with Avery Company.


Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford. This blog post was produced as part of our partnership with the Michigan Soybean Committee to deepen understanding of the important soybean crop and to provide the public with the chance to learn more about agriculture and the innovations that have helped farmers feed the world. You can learn more about the partnership, soybeans, and soybean ties to The Henry Ford in our kickoff post here.

Henry Ford Museum, Michigan, by Debra A. Reid, farms and farming, farming equipment, agriculture, soybeans

Small red tractor with enclosed cab pulling a planter through a dirt fieldVersatile #276 Tractor Pulling a Deere Low-Till Planter, 1989 / THF277397


Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation includes an exhibition called Agriculture and the Environment. The first section, Preparing the Soil, includes artifacts used by farmers to prepare the seed bed and plant crops. These artifacts all reflect practices common during the mid-19th to early-20th centuries, with the exception of two items: one, a Caterpillar continuous track tractor designed for use in orchards, and the John Deere 7000 No-Till Planter, also known as the MaxEmerge 7000 conservation planter. This post puts the Deere MaxEmerge planter into perspective and explains its utility as a no-till planter, both historically and today.

Tillage


A quick overview of tillage—that is, how farmers prepare land for growing crops—helps lay the groundwork (as it were). For thousands of years, farmers turned the topsoil over with a plow pulled by a draft animal—a single steer or team of oxen, draft horses, or mules. Henry Ford’s experiments with his “automotive plow” and subsequent introduction of the affordable Fordson tractor led to the replacement of draft animals on most farms after World War II, but the plow endured. Plowing broke up the roots of whatever vegetation was established before or between plantings. This was the first step in preparing a seed bed.

Black-and-white photo of man riding a tractor through a field partially dirt and partially stubble
Man Using a 1939-1946 John Deere Model "B" Series Tractor / THF286596

The next step involved working the plowed ground to break up clods and create a more even surface. This required use of harrows or discs of various designs, as you can see here. Hitching technology installed on the Ford-Ferguson 9N tractor starting in 1939 and adopted by tractor manufacturers helped keep this disc tracking in line with the tractor. Farmers with large acreages under tillage favored row-crop tractors like the John Deere Model “B” in the photo below, where a farmer is discing a plowed field. The narrow wheel-spacing at the front end ran between rows of crops. After plowing and discing, some farmers harrowed fields to put the finishing touches on the seedbed.

Black-and-white photo of man riding a tractor through a dirt field
Man Using a 1947-1952 John Deere Model "B" Series Tractor / THF286606

You can explore more than 40 tillage implements in The Henry Ford collection here. This is just the tip of the iceberg of mechanical innovations designed to ease the physically demanding process of field preparation. These tools helped farmers practice integrated pest management, too, because careful field preparation pulverized the organic material that insects like boll weevil in cotton or corn borer larvae lived in during the winter months. These pests could destroy crops in a pre-insecticide agricultural system.

Tillage, however, exposed topsoil to the elements. The more acreage farmers tilled, the more topsoil they lost due to erosion. In addition, severe droughts parched soil, destroying all organic matter. This exacerbated erosion as more and more topsoil blew away or washed away with heavy rains.

Planting and Cultivating


Different crops cover the ground in different ways. Farmers raising small grains drilled seed into prepared seed beds. The grain, planted at times of the year when other plant growth slowed, needed little to no cultivation. You can see grain drills and learn more about them here, including photographs of the Bickford & Huffman grain drill in use at Firestone Farm in Greenfield Village.

Prior to the adoption of in-season herbicides, most crops required cultivation after planting to disturb the roots of plants that threatened to choke out the cash crop. Farmers used different cultivators depending on the crops they grew, but cultivators further disturbed the soil and could hasten moisture evaporation.

Duplicated image of man riding a horse-drawn tractor through a field; contains text on image mat
Cultivating a Field of Cotton, Around 1911 / THF624655

The photograph below shows a row-crop tractor with an under-mounted cultivator at work in a soybean field. The single-front tire running down the middle of two rows ensured that the cultivators tracked between rows, to better remove weeds in between the cash crop.

Black-and-white photo of man riding tractor through very large field filled with small plants
Man Using a 1935-1938 John Deere Model "B" Series Tractor / THF286604

The Development of No-Till


You may have already grasped the connection between tillage and the no-till planter. Intensive cultivation of cropland contributed to topsoil erosion. The loss of the fertile topsoil reduced yields, and extreme weather worsened the loss. This led many to call for radical changes in tillage methods.

Agricultural scientists and engineers with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and state-based land-grant colleges addressed the challenge quickly. The University of Illinois established the Dixon Springs Agricultural Center in southern Illinois in 1934 to research soil erosion and low-till options. Purdue University in Indiana began the first experiments planting row crops in uncultivated soil in 1944. Russell R. Poyner, the agricultural engineer who worked on this project, went to work at International Harvester Company in 1945. By 1947, he submitted a patent for a mulch-tiller-planter designed for erosion control and conservation of moisture. He coined the new tillage approach “stubble mulch” farming, and as assignor to International Harvester, received U.S. Patent No. 2,577,363 in 1951. International Harvester produced the two-row McCormick M-21 till planter with fertilizer application only briefly and stopped altogether in 1955 due to sluggish sales.

Another early no-till proponent, agronomist George McKibben, worked at Dixon Springs. He and Donnie Morris, the machinery engineer at Dixon Springs, tested a zero-till planter by 1966. Morris describes the challenges he solved—specifically, how to get the seed in the ground. The research team used his “sod and stubble” planter starting in 1969, but an appeal to Deere and Company (the company that makes John Deere brand items) fell on deaf ears.

Allis-Chalmers released the two-row No-Til planting system in 1966, recognized as the first commercially available (and successful) no-till planter. The planter had a fluted coulter (vertical cutting blade) that sliced crop residue and prepared the seed bed just ahead of the fertilizer tank and planter unit.

The John Deere 7000 No-Till Planter: Agricultural Superstar


Large green agricultural implement with yellow bins, in an exhibit among other agricultural equipment and other objects
John Deere 7000 No-Till Planter, 1978 / THF151661

Peter Cousins, then Curator of Agriculture at The Henry Ford, acquired the John Deere 7000 No-Till Planter because, as he wrote in a memo to The Henry Ford’s collections committee on August 23, 1994, he considered it one of a few “superstars” of modern agricultural technology. In that same memo, he explained that of the three companies that introduced no-till planters, only Deere and Company survived. Allis-Chalmers left the farm implement business in 1985. International Harvester also ended its agricultural lines and broke up in 1985. Thus, he believed that only Deere and Company could locate, restore, and donate a first model no-till planter.

What qualifies as a “superstar?” Peter does not go into detail, but he names one other artifact in his memo—the FMC tomato harvester (1969). These two artifacts share at least three key elements that Peter considered as he strengthened The Henry Ford’s collection of 20th-century agricultural technology. First, the implement represents exchange between adopters, engineers, and others, a process described as the social construction of technology. Second, the implement transforms agricultural production. Third, the consequences of the transformation reverberate beyond farm fields.

A green tractor trailing a long blue machine hitched behind it travels through a field of dirt and stubble
A Modern John Deere No-Till Planter Sowing Soybeans / Photo courtesy of the United Soybean Board

The collaborative research undertaken by teams of experts at agricultural experiment stations across the country satisfy the first of these three “superstar” criteria. The experiments station staff worked with farmers to determine their needs and respond to them. The planter donated by Deere and Company to The Henry Ford, for example, had been used by Arthur Kruse on his Calmar, Iowa, farm between 1979 and 1994. It included “a wheel module planter with dry fertilizer option, insecticide box, unit mounted coulters, and cast closing wheels.” That insecticide box is telling—the stubble-mulch farming system came with another set of challenges. The stubble served as a vector for pests, namely the European corn borer in corn. A no-till planter that applied insecticide as well as dry fertilizer appealed to farmers even more.

Two small green seedlings grow among sticks and leaves
Soybean Seedlings Emerging Among the Residue of the Previous Year’s Crop / Photo courtesy of the United Soybean Board

No-till planter technology changed the system of agriculture. The title of a July 16, 1994, New York Times article that Peter attached to the collections committee memo says it all: “New Way of Tilling Speeds the Plow’s Demise.” Today, no-till or conservation tillage helps farmers reduce erosion and retain soil moisture. Yet, input costs remain high as they apply herbicide to deaden growth before no-till planting, and then apply fertilizer and insecticides while planting.

On the other hand, Michigan State University researchers claim that “no-till farming practices have very positive economic and environmental benefits over decades.” Farm fields can benefit from the environmental benefits of topsoil retention enriched with hygroscopic (tending to absorb moisture from the air) organic matter. They can also realize higher yields over the long run.

Farmers, Please Share Your Stories


The Henry Ford would love to hear from Michigan farmers about your reasons for adopting no-till farming practices, either wholly or selectively, and what you believe the benefits are. You can e-mail us your feedback at MichiganSoybeanFarmers@thehenryford.org.


Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford. This blog post was produced as part of our partnership with the Michigan Soybean Committee to deepen understanding of the important soybean crop and to provide the public with the chance to learn more about agriculture and the innovations that have helped farmers feed the world. You can learn more about the partnership, soybeans, and soybean ties to The Henry Ford in our kickoff post here.

environmentalism, Henry Ford Museum, farms and farming, farming equipment, agriculture, by Debra A. Reid

Person standing in waders in water holds oysters in their gloved handsheir

Photo courtesy Rappahannock Oyster Co.

As early as 1920, Chesapeake Bay’s seemingly limitless oyster population had been diminished by up to one-third, both by overharvesting and by habitat destruction caused by siltation and dredging. By 2001, the harmful effects of pollution and disease had taken their toll, and the bay’s native Virginica oysters dwindled to less than 1% of their historic numbers. The bay had all but collapsed.

It was under these conditions that cousins Ryan and Travis Croxton decided to revitalize their family’s historic oyster farm, Rappahannock Oyster Co. Founded in 1899 by their great-grandfather, James Croxton, on Virginia’s Rappahannock River, the company wasn’t much more than mud by the time the cousins took over the leases in 2001. But in that rich tideland, the cousins saw an opportunity to salvage a family legacy and renew their community.

Two men wearing boots, khakis/jeans, and t-shirts sit with their legs dangling off a dock with a wooden building in the background
Cousins Travis (left) and Ryan Croxton have transformed their great-grandfather’s oyster farm, Rappahannock Oyster Co., into a model of sustainability that is practicing food production methods that are healthier for the consumer, the Chesapeake Bay they call home and the native oyster they are 100% committed to preserving. / Photo courtesy Rappahannock Oyster Co.

Because they were starting from the mud up, the cousins were able to develop sustainable new methods that not only produce the highest-quality shellfish but also contribute to the health of the bay and repopulation of its aquatic life.

“Aquacultured oysters are a win-win for everybody—the farmer, the waters, the consumer that gets a better product,” said Travis Croxton, whose off-bottom method of growing oysters in wire cages not only protects the oysters but also allows them to reproduce naturally—a vital factor in restoring native oyster populations. And because oysters feed on excess nutrients in the water, their presence also helps keep the bay clean, as well as helping native grasses and other sea creatures to proliferate.

Infographic with text and numbers
The number of oysters harvested in the Chesapeake Bay has grown wildly in the last two decades.

Perhaps the most satisfying thing for the cousins has been the ability to provide an opportunity to work, grow, and live in what has been a depressed rural economy. “Too often, rural communities such as ours lose promising talent as people look elsewhere due to lack of opportunity,” said Croxton. “We’re proud that our employees have a reason to stay.”

Man in blue t-shirt, baseball cap, gloves, and overalls stands in front of baskets of oysters in a workroom as another man looks on
Photo courtesy Rappahannock Oyster Co.

By 2004, Rappahannock had developed a thriving wholesale business. Now with their tasting room, Merroir, four stand-alone oyster bars from Washington, DC, to Los Angeles, California, and a restaurant, Rappahannock, in Richmond, Virginia, the cousins are able to share their oysters and their dedication to “good people doing great things.”

When we checked in during spring 2020, owner Travis Croxton didn’t deny that it had been tough for Rappahannock Oyster since the COVID-19 pandemic had hit. He and cousin Ryan Croxton had to furlough hundreds of employees at their oyster company and restaurants. But, as Travis Croxton said, “You have to perform a hard pivot and await what the future may hold.” Rappahannock quickly set up an employee relief fund for those in need and shifted their restaurants to solely curbside pickup/takeout. On the oyster company side, they had to make additional hard pivots, focusing mostly on internet sales (which Travis Croxton said have greatly increased) and designing completely new business models, which included working with vineyards and breweries to sell 25-count bags of their oysters on consignment on weekends. 

Black-and-white photo of a man wearing shorts, a short-sleeved button down shirt, and a hat walks across a beach made of oyster shells
In 1899, James Croxton, great-grandfather of Travis and Ryan Croxton, laid claim to two acres of Rappahannock River bottom for the purpose of growing oysters. / Photo courtesy Rappahannock Oyster Co.

Despite these challenges, by trying to sustain nature, not tame it, the Croxtons have carried on their great-grandfather’s legacy, this time on a foundation of sustainability.


This post is adapted from “Sustainability at Stake,” an article written by Linda Engelsiepen for the June–December 2020 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine.

entrepreneurship, nature, environmentalism, agriculture, farms and farming, food, by Linda Engelsiepen, The Henry Ford Magazine

Great Lakes Brewing Co. has been around for more than 30 years, brewing award-winning craft beer in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood. Its founders, brothers Daniel and Patrick Conway, focused on sustainability from the start by renovating the 19th-century buildings that house their brewery and brewpub.

By the early 2000s, they’d also decided they wanted to do more for their community, the environment, and the health and well-being of their workers. “We view business as a force for good in our communities,” said Daniel Conway. “Our role is essentially one of stewardship.”

Man in baseball cap and green t-shirt holds up grabber and trash bag while standing on concrete steps with trees and grass on either side
A Brewing Good community clean-up effort by Great Lakes Brewing Co. / Photo courtesy Great Lakes Brewing Co.

The brothers have developed a triple bottom line business model that addresses profit, people, and planet, with initiatives that include water stewardship, renewable and clean energy, and inclusive economic growth.

An early adopter in the local food movement, the company established its own farm, Pint Size Farm, in collaboration with Hale Farm and Village in 2008 to supply its brewpub, and in 2010 co-founded Ohio City Farm, one of the largest urban farms in the United States (learn more about these two farms here). The solar panels on their brewery offset 13 tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually—a widget on their website shows how much beer is brewed using solar energy. And by inviting employees to become owners through an employee stock program, the company allows everyone a stake in its sustainability.

Several people work on a farm plot with a city skyline in the background
Ohio City Farm, co-founded by Great Lakes Brewing Co. / Photo courtesy Great Lakes Brewing Co.

Great Lakes’ Brewing Good giving program also commits a percentage of company sales back to the community through initiatives that preserve history, advocate environmentalism, and focus on critical needs in the local area. The company’s nonprofit Burning River Foundation, which annually hosts the Great Lakes Burning River Fest, strives to maintain and celebrate the vitality of the region’s freshwater resources. “Burning River,” also the name of a Great Lakes Brewing Co. pale ale, references a particular incident: the Cuyahoga River fire of 1969, in which an oil slick on the heavily polluted river caught fire and caused damage in the six figures. The incident sparked further outrage and interest in environmentalism, driving significant policy changes for the Cleveland area and beyond.

While the COVID-19 pandemic forced Great Lakes Brewing Co. to close its brewpub temporarily, beer continued to be brewed and to flow through the local distribution footprint and to-go service. Beers such as the 107 IPA and Siren Shores Passion Fruit Saison, the first employee team recipe ever created on Great Lakes Brewing’s Small Batch Pilot System, debuted in spring 2020. Social media channels continued to keep the community in the know on what Great Lakes was up to, from its Hop College going online and posting video tutorials and sessions on Facebook, to owner Daniel Conway’s heartfelt request to join him in supporting the Race for Relief fundraiser benefiting the Society of St. Vincent de Paul Cleveland hunger centers.

Infographic with text and numbers
Statistics on Great Lakes Brewing Co.’s sustainability efforts as of mid-2020.

The Conway brothers have long had an understanding of how each part of their business ecosystem feeds into the next. By continuing to innovate new strategies of sustainability, they’ve led by example and helped to revive both an industry and their community.


This post is adapted from “Sustainability at Stake,” an article written by Linda Engelsiepen for the June–December 2020 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine.

entrepreneurship, COVID 19 impact, farms and farming, food, by Linda Engelsiepen, The Henry Ford Magazine, environmentalism, beverages

Wooden equipment on wheels, with many cone-shaped devices pointing downward
A Bickford & Huffman grain drill, circa 1890, used at Firestone Farm in Greenfield Village. / THF110028


"In the Farmers' Favorite Plain Drill we offer the best machine for the purpose that has ever been produced, and believe we can prove it to be better made, of better material, better finished, better balance, and capable of sowing a greater range of work easier and better under all circumstances than any other." –Bickford & Huffman Co. Catalogue, 1896

Lyman Bickford and Henry Huffman founded what became the Bickford & Huffman Co. in 1842. By the 1870s, their small company in Macedon, New York, sold one of nation's most effective mechanical planters. The mechanization that took place on American farms with machinery such as horse-drawn grain drills, reapers, and threshing machines allowed American farmers to increase their field size and efficiently harvest small grain crops such as wheat, oats, and barley. If properly planted, these crops grow densely, and farmers did not need to remove weeds. But if the seeds were dropped inconsistently, then weeds would take up space in the field and reduce the harvest. Truly how well you sowed your crop determined the quantity you would reap. To comply with their customers’ beliefs, and to confirm their machines’ superiority, the Bickford & Huffman Co. emblazoned their grain drills with the phrase "As Ye Sow So Shall Ye Reap," along with the name "The Farmers' Favorite."

Brown or maroon wooden equipment with text "As Ye Sow So Shall Ye Reap" against decorative gold scrolling, two American flags, and a horseshoe
"As Ye Sow So Shall Ye Reap” printed on our Bickford & Huffman grain drill. / THF189173

From the 1840s into the 1880s, the Midwest served as America's breadbasket. Ohio farmers ranked top in the nation in wheat production in 1840 with 16.5 million bushels—almost one billion pounds of wheat. Farmers such as Benjamin Firestone in Columbia County, Ohio, planted winter wheat in the fall as a cash crop, and oats in the spring to use as horse feed. In 1880, Firestone planted eight acres of wheat and ten acres of oats. Like all farmers, his expectations were heightened as he planted his crops and hoped for a bountiful harvest. Like many farmers, he probably abided by the rule "As Ye Sow, So Shall Ye Reap." By the late 1800s, wheat production shifted to Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas.

You can see a Bickford & Huffman grain drill in use during the spring in Greenfield Village as the hands at Firestone Farm prepare and plant the fields. The drill drops seeds just a few inches apart, and the wheat or oats will sprout and spread, forming a lush field of grain. By the middle of June to early July, the grain will be ready to harvest, after which it will be stored until we thresh it in the fall. This drill, though more than 100 years old, continues to sow the hopes of our farmers and demonstrate innovation in American agriculture.

Black cat on piece of wooden equipment in wooden barn
Firestone barn cat Ellen keeps an eye on our Bickford & Huffman grain drill when not in use. / Photo by Jillian Ferraiuolo

Today, farmers still plant using grain drills. Tractor-drawn machines pull grain drills that are as wide as 30 feet. Farmers still rely on a good stand of grain to help control weeds, but also spray herbicide to kill unwanted plants in the field. Some people worry that the use of these chemicals threatens our environment. Others argue that when used in moderation these chemicals are safe. Though we are reaping bountiful harvests, our farming practices may result in unintended problems—we may not know all that we are harvesting.


Leo E. Landis is former Curator of Agriculture & Rural Life at The Henry Ford. This post was adapted from the April 2001 entry in our former Pic of the Month series.

farming equipment, Greenfield Village, farms and farming, environmentalism, by Leo Landis, agriculture

Logo with text "International Year of Fruits and Vegetables 2021" and smiley face made up of simple stylized vegetables

The United Nations designated 2021 as the International Year of Fruits and Vegetables. / Logo by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations © FAO

The United Nations (UN) draws attention to selected topics by designating “international years.” These may seem inconsequential until you read more about the goals. The UN’s International Year of Fruits and Vegetables (IYFV), observed during 2021, sought to raise awareness of nutrition, promote healthy diets, reduce food waste, and improve supply chains. The Henry Ford has much to share about all of these topics that can help people live healthier lives.

IYFV Goal One: Raising awareness of and directing policy attention to the nutrition and health benefits of fruits and vegetables consumption.

The first goal, raising awareness of nutrition, aligns squarely with the concept of food security. A person might have enough to eat, but that food may not be nutritious. Inadequate nutrition leads to ill health. During Black History Month this year, The Henry Ford shared an exhibit on food security, which you can also read about in our blog post “Food Soldiers: Nutrition and Race Activism.” Will Allen, urban agriculture advocate, summarized this idea well: “Without a strong food system, a community cannot call itself sustainable.” Melvin Parson, market gardener, social entrepreneur and The Henry Ford’s first William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship Entrepreneur in Residence, dedicates his energy to growing fresh food and supplying area restaurants to spread the nutritional value of fresh foods. Melvin also emphasizes the personally regenerative power of growing your own food, as formerly incarcerated individuals regain their freedom and chart their futures through farming.

IYFV Goal Two: Promoting diversified, balanced, and healthy diets and lifestyles through fruit and vegetable consumption.

White label with logos and images of pineapple and holly branches
Can Label, "Holly Brand Crushed Pineapples," California Packing Corporation, San Francisco, California, 1920-1940. / THF294147

The Henry Ford’s chefs promote healthy diets, the second goal, as part of their daily routines. They adapted recipes originally published by George Washington Carver and debuted them at Plum Market and Taste of History during 2021. You can read more about the process to perfect these mouth-watering entrees, side dishes, and desserts in our post “Beyond the Peanut: Food Inspired by Carver.” Carver dedicated his career to food advocacy, and his recipes and advice literature explain how people, often marginalized and victimized, can use “Healthy Food to Build Healthy Communities.”

IYFV Goal Three: Reducing losses and waste in fruits and vegetables food systems.

Black-and-white photo of a man wearing overalls standing pouring slops for a group of pigs in a farmyard
Farmer Feeding Pigs and Chickens, circa 1935. / THF621845

The third goal, to reduce food waste, immediately calls to mind the historical role of pigs on farms. Farmers (like the fellow in the photograph above) often fed skim milk or buttermilk, byproducts of dairy processing, to their pigs. The pigs at Firestone Farm in Greenfield Village benefit from this richness. Reducing food waste factors into regenerative agricultural practices because food waste can be composted and returned to the soil, adding nutrients and biomass—both essential for soil health. The Henry Ford’s internal Green Team incorporated composting into the strategic plan it developed during 2021. Firestone Farm presenters also reduce waste by composting garden waste and sheep bedding for use in gardens and farm fields. The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation crew filmed a story on regenerative agriculture during 2021—stay tuned for this episode to air during Season 9!

Page with text and images of two yellow pears--one smaller and lighter in color; the other larger and more orange
This page features two pears, “Lawrence” and “Triumph,” distributed by Stark Bro’s and illustrated in
Stark Fruits as Grown by Stark Bro's Nurseries & Orchards Co., 1902, page 51. / THF610234

IYFV Goal Four: Sharing best practices on:

  • Promotion of consumption and sustainable production of fruits and vegetables that contributes to sustainable food systems;
  • Improved sustainability of storage, transport, trade, processing, transformation, retail, waste reduction and recycling, as well as interactions among these processes;
  • Integration of smallholders including family farmers into local, regional, and global production, value/supply chains for sustainable production and consumption of fruits and vegetables, recognizing the contributions of fruits and vegetables, including farmers’ varieties/landraces, to their food security, nutrition, livelihoods and incomes;
  • Strengthening the capacity of all countries, specially developing countries, to adopt innovative approaches and technology in combating loss and waste of fruits and vegetables.


The fourth goal, to improve supply chains, applies to two very different aspects of fruits and vegetables. One relates to the delivery of seasonal fruits and vegetables to points of sale. This was a business grew through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as pomologists addressed plant propagation, plant breeders like Luther Burbank created new varieties, and companies like Stark Bro’s Nurseries and Orchards Co. marketed their own plants for wholesale and retail markets. These topics and many others related to fresh fruits and vegetables are well represented in the collections of The Henry Ford.

Black-and-white photograph of people working at a long wall of boxes filled with some kind of produce
These men and boys are grading pears by size and packing them immediately after picking into wooden crates marked C.F.C.A. (California Fruit Canners Association) No. 1 and C.P.C. (California Packing Corporation). Photograph Album, California Packing Corporation Operations, circa 1922, page 5. / THF276795

Individuals sought out fruit trees and berry-bearing shrubs from companies such as Stark Bro’s because farm families had to maintain orchards that yielded fruit for many purposes and over long periods of time, from summer through frost. Those without orchards relied on public markets, or the produce section in grocery stores, for their fresh produce. A refrigerated railcar represents the complex systems of moving and hauling perishable foodstuffs.

Two people stand by a grocery cart in a room filled with shelves stocked with canned goods; other shoppers are nearby
This commissary in Richmond Hill, Georgia, circa 1947, shows shelf after shelf of canned goods, including peas, pineapple juice, orange juice, V-8 juice, and peaches, as well as a “hand” of bananas hanging on the back wall. / THF135658

Rows of cans on grocery store shelves marked the end of road for many fruits and vegetables. Many depended on these inexpensive foodstuffs, but few had a sense of the scale of production required to satisfy this demand. One California Packing Corporation photograph album shows the establishment of a Del Monte orchard described as “the largest peach and apricot orchard in the world,” with these fruits all bound for canneries and drying facilities. The H.J. Heinz Company Collection documents all steps in the process, from laying out fields, planting and cultivating plants, harvesting, processing, packing, and loading the final product into railcars for distribution.

Black photo album page with three images--two showing fields and one showing two people with hoes and shovels in a field
Planting trees, Tract #1, Spring 1920, Photograph Album, California Packing Corporation Ranches and Orchards, 1919-1927. / THF276721

The histories of fruit and vegetable supply chains raise our awareness of labor inequities, environmental degradation, and divergent opinions about plant genetics. Two overviews of one fruit, the tomato, explore all of these topics: “Multiple Takes on Tomatoes” and “Contradictory Impacts: Mechanizing California’s Tomato Harvest.”

Cream, light blue, and dark blue can label with stylized flower arrangements in vases and two large images of tomatoes
Can Label, "Luxury Brand Solid Pack Tomatoes," circa 1916. / THF294205

These resources from the collections of The Henry Ford introduce some key elements that speak to the United Nations’ International Year of Fruits and Vegetables, but also to some of the most important themes around food in general—nutrition, health, waste reduction, and sustainable supply chains. As we anticipate introducing our visitors to the Vegetable Building from Detroit Central Market in Greenfield Village during 2022, we look forward to bringing you much more on all aspects of the food production system—from fresh to freeze-dried and beyond.


Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford.

farms and farming, agriculture, food, #THFCuratorChat, by Debra A. Reid

“The Farmer Is the Man That Feeds Us All.” The words of that folk tune became indelibly imprinted on U.S. popular culture when Alan Lomax included it as the 66th out of the 317 songs in Folk Songs of North America (in the English Language) (1960). In fact, linking “the farmer” to “the man” tells only half the story!

Painting of four women in flowing white gowns; one holds a cornucopia and one two plant fronds
Women in classical dress, 1790-1810 / THF152522

Plenty of popular images of women in agriculture exist. The painting above, rendered by a girl in Massachusetts in the early years of the new nation, shows a woman holding a cornucopia. This likely represented either Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture, or Copia, the Roman goddess of abundance. The goddess to the far right, holding a branch, might represent Pax, the Roman goddess of peace.

Page with text and images of woman working with some kind of tools and fabric weaving in progress
Mode of Spinning and Weaving by the Pueblo Indians, 1857 / THF621691

Abundance and peace marked a stable and secure agricultural society. Yet, farms throughout the expanding United States flourished on lands that matrilineal indigenous societies had managed for centuries before colonization. The Henry Ford acknowledges these matrilineal indigenous societies as stewards of the lands that sustained them for centuries.

Ribbon with text and a number of images
Hillsboro County Agricultural and Mechanical Fair Badge, 1852 / THF154922

The popular depictions of goddesses of agriculture, grains, harvest, and fertility continued in U.S. popular culture for decades. The agricultural fair badge above depicts either the Greek goddess, Demeter; the Roman goddess, Ceres; or America’s Lady Liberty—all matrons of agriculture.

In contrast, illustrations in The Farmers and Dairymans Almanac, published the same year (1852), featured only men engaged in the practice of growing crops and rearing livestock. The work fit the seasons—flailing grain, building fence, spreading manure, and bringing in the sheaves—but emphasized that men did agricultural work and ran the business of farming as well.

Male authority over business ventures, including farming, stemmed from legal traditions based in English common law. These included the precedent of feme covert—that married women had no legal civil identity separate from their husbands. Married women were civilly dead. Thus, only single adult women or widows could negotiate the legally binding contracts required to operate farms. Married women could not—their husbands alone had the legal authority to do so. State laws began chipping away at feme covert during the 1820s by granting married women authority over their wages, recourse if abandoned by a husband, or the privilege of parental authority. It took decades, however, before most states afforded married women authority over their property and finances.

Woman in striped dress sits on low stool, milking a cow eating hay, next to a wooden fence and building
Woman milking a cow, circa 1890 / THF228504

Women acted as farmers, nonetheless. They performed many tasks routinely, including milking cows and tending chickens.

Seven women wearing kerchiefs and long skirts work in a field
Farm scene showing Norwegian women at work in fields off Merrick Road, 1890-1915 / THF38397

Women worked in the fields, too, especially when crops needed planting, cultivating, or harvesting. Sometimes they did this work as a member of a gang of laborers. The companionship might have eased some of the tedium of hoeing around seedlings to reduce competition from weeds, but it did not ease the physical demands of the labor. The women shown above, described as Norwegian by the photographer, work in farm fields near Brooklyn, New York.

Open field with a large group of people sitting/standing/working in the distance, some with boxes
Workers in an Onion Field, H. J. Heinz Company, circa 1910 / THF291590

Perishable commodities required everyone to pitch in. The above photograph shows girls and boys, as well as women and men, busy in an onion field under contract to the H. J. Heinz Company.

Duplicate arched photographs in a frame with text, depicting people working at trees in a wooded area, one rolling a barrel into a wagon
In a Great Pine Forest, Collecting Turpentine, North Carolina / THF278800

During harvest seasons, farming needs often took precedence over domestic routines and women worked alongside men to get work done as quickly as possible. This included harvesting turpentine from long-leaf pine forests—yes, forestry work is a branch of agricultural work.

Women operated some machinery, too. Illustrated Industries and Geography of America (1882) features women and children raking hay. One illustration (page 96) shows a woman operating a Wheeler & Melick Co. rake, but this and others like it might have been pure advertising ploys, emphasizing ease of operation and celebrating the notion that “many hands make light work.” The description for the Coates Lock-Lever Hay and Grain Rake in Illustrated Industries and Geography of America (page 231) explains that “twenty acres is a fair day’s work, and as any boy or girl who can guide a horse can work it, it will readily be seen how great a labor-saver it is.”


Page with text and several line drawings that show agricultural work and tools
Illustrated Industries and Geography of America (1882), pg. 240 / THF277183

The need to get hay in dry provided opportunities for girls and women to contribute their labor. The 1882 illustration above shows a girl and a boy on horses that generate the power to raise the loaded hay fork and run it along the track to dump hay in the barn. The same illustration shows a woman at work in the dirtiest job, distributing the dumped hay in the mow.

Double arched duplicate photographs in a frame with text, showing a group of African American people standing on a large hay pile
A Rice Raft with Plantation Hands, Near Georgetown, South Carolina, 1901-1909 / THF278804

The work completed by women and children often contributed to the economic solvency of the family farm. They “gleaned” by walking through harvested fields and picking up grain and straw missed by the work crews. The photograph above shows laborers after a day at work in rice fields in South Carolina. The raft transported them and their grain and straw back home, where they hulled the grain for family use or to sell and used the straw as forage or bedding for their livestock.

Other important farm work occurred in domestic spaces. This “women’s work” should not be discounted among farm work. Women and girls ensured food security and kept farms running by raising, processing, and preserving food crops and processing animal products (eggs, dairy, meat). Several farm homes in Greenfield Village tell these critical stories.

Garden with raised wooden beds containing nasturtiums and other plants, with wooden building and windmill in the distance
Daggett Farm in Greenfield Village, September 2007 / Photographed by Michelle Andonian / THF53544

The Daggett family, of Daggett Farmhouse, had a very set routine of farm and household management tasks. Samuel Daggett ran the business side of the farm. He had to ensure harvests of enough hay to keep the cattle herd healthy, and enough small grains to satisfy family consumption needs and market income. Anna Bushnell Daggett, on the other hand, oversaw the kitchen garden, to ensure harvests adequate to feed the family. The Daggett family raised food they needed for the entire year on their farmland. They had to plan the quantity and quality of plants and vegetables they needed to grow and harvest to ensure family survival. They then had to preserve the crops by pickling, storing (in a root cellar), fermenting, or drying them to ensure a supply throughout the winter months and into the next season.

Print of aerial view of farm property, with house, outbuildings, fields, trees, cows and horses, and people
Illustrated Historical Atlas of the County of Wayne, Michigan, 1876, page 34, detail / THF126026

The Ford farmhouse functioned well under the oversight of Henry Ford’s mother, Mary Litogot Ford. She maintained the busy farmstead while ensuring that her young and growing family was well fed and healthy. She, with the help of neighboring farmgirls, milked the cattle and tended chickens. She may also have helped with pressing seasonal farm work like bringing in the hay crop, but her young family probably consumed most of her attention on the farm. Mary unfortunately passed away on March 29, 1876, and it’s hard to imagine the historical farmstead operating without her at the center (distinctive in her dress in the illustration above, published in 1876) standing with children and chickens.

Two women shuck and remove kernels from corn cobs at a kitchen table containing other dishes and food
Firestone Farm in Greenfield Village, September 2007, Photographed by Michelle Andonian / THF52966

Firestone Farmhouse provides insight into the question, “What does it take to put a meal on the table?” This work drove a farm woman’s working day as she prepared three meals each day, 365 days every year. Morning activities focused on the repetitive and time-consuming tasks of preparing, consuming, and cleaning up after breakfast, while also preparing farm-grown produce, eggs, and meat for the noon meal. Other chores, including work in the kitchen garden, processing of dairy products, and tending to the chicken flock, in addition to household chores and childcare, consumed afternoons and evenings. Evenings involved additional preparation for the same tasks repeated the next day, and so on. Disruptions to these routines included celebrations like weddings, somber events such as funerals, and the haste of harvest which increased the farm workload for all.

Black-and-white photo of wooden house with large iron kettle over ring of stones in dirt yard
Mattox Family Home in Greenfield Village, 1991 / THF45318

The center of many farm women’s lives revolved around the backyards of farm homes. Grace Mattox, her ancestors and her children, spent countless hours over decades keeping the backyard of the Mattox Family Home swept. This area, with its nearby brush arbor, provided additional space to get work done, and to visit with relatives and neighbors while they did it. The Mattox children remembered their hardscrabble existence, consisting of constant work to keep the garden cultivated, ripe vegetables processed, and food on the table.

The Henry Ford’s collections and these historic farmsteads in Greenfield Village provide a glimpse into the routines of farm women’s work. Their labor, from sun-up to sun-down, was essential to ensure the health and wellbeing of their families, as well as the smooth operation of their farms. These routines changed by the mid-twentieth century, as processed foods reduced the work required to maintain the family food supply and new farm implements replaced laborers. Often, women pursued off-farm work, but they remained essential to farm operations as their earnings helped family farms make ends meet.


Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford and Kathleen Johnson is a student at Henry Ford Academy.

Daggett Farmhouse, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, home life, food, women's history, farms and farming, agriculture, by Kathleen Johnson, by Debra A. Reid, #THFCuratorChat

Large red wheeled piece of equipment in a field with a number of people riding on itFMC Cascade Tomato Harvester in Use, circa 1985 / THF146505


The adoption of mechanical tomato harvesters in the 1960s both industrialized tomato production and ushered in a countermovement of small growers and local food advocates. How could one machine prompt such contradictory but real changes in agriculture? The full story spans decades and reveals complex relationships of supply and demand—for both agricultural products and the people who grow and harvest them.

Shortage and Struggle


Green label with logo, text, and image of peppers and tomato half
California’s labor shortage threatened the supply of processing tomatoes for ketchup, sauces, tomato juice, canned tomatoes, and other products. Can label, "Del Monte Brand Spanish Style Tomato Sauce," circa 1930. / THF294183, detail

To meet rising demand for processing tomatoes (to be made into ketchups, sauces, tomato juice, canned tomatoes, and other products) in the early 20th century, growers needed laborers to pick them. Those laborers, in turn, needed living wages. Tensions between growers and laborers came to a head during the New Deal era of the 1930s, when government policies promised minimum wages, maximum hours, and workers’ compensation. Yet, lobbyists working for growers and agricultural processers convinced policy makers to exempt agricultural workers from these protections.

Laborers voted with their feet, seeking employment beyond farm fields. This caused a critical labor shortage that became even more acute during World War II for growers raising tomatoes and other crops in California and beyond. To meet demand, the United States and Mexican governments negotiated the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement. This guest labor program brought millions of farmworkers, known as braceros, from Mexico to work in the United States for short periods of time between 1942 and 1964.

Man sits on a stack of wood or doors with a field behind him, looking in a box; four other men look on
This photograph illustrated a news report on braceros resuming the tomato harvest near Danville, Illinois, in August 1945. / THF147934

A chain of events during the 1960s called attention to the plight of agricultural laborers. Edward R. Murrow’s television documentary Harvest of Shame (1960) highlighted the precarious existence of migrant laborers who worked picking perishable fruits and vegetables in the Midwest and along the East Coast. The Bracero Program expired in 1964, reducing the number of available laborers and increasing growers’ dependence on the existing labor pool. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which, along with other anti-poverty and housing legislation, made it clear that migratory and seasonal laborers had the right to humane treatment.

On the West Coast, Filipino laborers organized as part of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee. Seeking better wages and a more favorable rate of payment, they launched a grape strike that expanded into Delano, California, in 1965. The National Farm Workers Association, consisting mostly of Mexican migratory workers, joined the cause. This coordinated effort resulted in a new organization, the United Farm Workers (UFW), with Cesar Chavez as president.

Red flag with white circle containing stylistic, blocky silhouette of eagle and text "FARMWORKERS AFL-CIO"
The organizing efforts of groups like the United Farm Workers to secure better wages and living conditions for agricultural laborers in California gained national attention in the 1960s. United Farm Workers flag, circa 1970. / THF94392

The UFW devised innovative solutions to increase pressure on growers, and—especially due to the efforts of co-founder Dolores Huerta—built the Delano grape strike into a national boycott. This focused attention on basic needs for migratory and seasonal laborers. In addition to ensuring some protections for individuals, the coordinated effort secured the right for migratory and seasonal laborers as a class to collectively bargain.

Engineering a Solution to Labor Shortages


Tomato growers, keen on getting their crop planted, cultivated, and harvested at the optimum times, were interested in mechanical solutions that could address labor shortages. Mechanizing the harvest of this perishable commodity, however, proved to be a time-consuming challenge.

Scientists at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis), sought a labor shortage solution through mechanical and biological engineering. Research and development begun in the 1940s finally resulted in the successful design of both a mechanical tomato harvester (created in partnership with Blackwelder Manufacturing Company) and a tomato that could withstand mechanical harvesting (the VF145).

Black-and-white photo of man holding vegetable (sweet potato?) in a field
Large piece of mobile equipment in field with a number of people on it
Top: UC Davis vegetable crops researcher Gordie “Jack” Hanna developed the machine-harvestable VF145 tomato. Bottom: An early mechanical tomato harvester underway. Images from the 1968 USDA Yearbook,
Science for Better Living. / THF621133 and THF621134

By 1961, Blackwelder had released a commercial harvester and recommended the VF145 tomato for optimum mechanical harvesting. FMC Corporation released a competing harvester by 1966. Manufacturers touted the labor-saving value of mechanical harvesters at a time when the supply of laborers was too small to meet demand, and the adoption of this new technology was swift. In 1961, 25 mechanical harvesters picked about one-half of one percent of California’s tomato crop. Between 1965 and 1966, the number of harvesters doubled from 250 to 512 and the percentage of mechanically harvested tomatoes in California rocketed from 20 percent to 70 percent. By 1970, the transition was complete, with 99.9 percent of California’s tomato crop harvested mechanically. (For more, see Mark Kramer’s essay, "The Ruination of the Tomato," in the January 1980 issue of The Atlantic.)

Contradictory Impact


Some might claim mechanical harvesters helped save California’s processed tomato industry—by 1980, California growers produced 85 percent of that crop. But a closer look reveals a more complicated cause-and-effect. While growers could theoretically save their crop by replacing some labor with machines, many small-scale growers could not save their businesses from large-scale competition. By 1971, the number of tomato farmers had dropped by 82 percent. (This consolidation was mirrored elsewhere in the industry, as just four companies—Del Monte, Heinz, Campbell, and Libby’s—processed 72 percent of tomatoes by 1980.)

Page with text, image of tomatoes on tomato plants in field, and small image of piece of farm equipment
Tomato harvester advertisements promised farmers could save their businesses by replacing scarce laborers with machines, but many small-scale growers could not save themselves from large-scale competitors. Advertisement for FMC Corporation Tomato Harvester, circa 1966. / THF610767

A group of growers sued UC Davis, challenging the school for investing so much to develop the tomato harvester without spending comparable resources to address the needs of small farmers. In response, UC Davis opened its Small Farm Center, an advocacy center for alternative farmers, in 1979. These events coincided with wider efforts to hold the United States Department of Agriculture accountable for unequal distribution of support, resulting in increased attention at the national level to economically disadvantaged and ethnically diverse farmers. Around this same time, food activist Alice Waters raised awareness through her advocacy of locally sourced foods. Her restaurant, Chez Panisse, founded in Berkeley, California, in 1971, became an anchor for the burgeoning Slow Food movement.

So, while mechanical tomato harvesters—like the one on exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation—represent large-scale scientific and industrial advances, they also offer insight into this country’s complex labor history and help tell stories about small-scale farmers and their connections to communities, customers, and all of us who eat.


Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture & the Environment at The Henry Ford. Adapted by Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.

farming equipment, research, labor relations, Hispanic and Latino history, food, farms and farming, by Saige Jedele, by Debra A. Reid, agriculture

Man at wheel of vehicle with large conveyor built filled with tomatoes and tomato plants; another man stands at side and one behind

Machine-harvesting new tomato varieties, as depicted in the 1968 USDA Yearbook, Science for Better Living. / detail, THF621132

For millennia, people have domesticated plants and animals to ensure survival—this process is agriculture. And while most of us neither grow crops nor raise livestock, agriculture affects all our lives, every day: through the clothes we wear, the food we eat, and the fuel we use to move from place to place.

But agriculture is also the changing story of how this work is done. At every step, people have created new technology and tools to challenge nature’s limitations and to reduce the physical labor required to plant, cultivate, and harvest.

People produced much of what they ate until processed foods became big business in the United States during the late 1800s. As market demand increased, and commercial growing and canning grew, it prompted changes in farming. Take the tomato. Canning required ample quantity to guarantee supply, and vast fields of perishable crops required rapid harvest to ensure delivery of the best crop to processors.

Black-and-white image of a tomato field with workers in it and boxes of tomatoes at the end of some rows
Workers harvest tomatoes by hand at a Heinz farm in 1908. / THF252058

But mechanizing the tomato harvest required changing the crop—the tomato itself—so it could tolerate mechanical harvesting. During the 1940s and 1950s, crop scientists cross-pollinated tomatoes to create uniform sizes and shapes that matured at the same time, and with skins thick enough to withstand mechanical picking.

Agricultural engineers developed harvesting machines that combined levers and gears to dislodge tomatoes from the stalk and stem. But humans remained part of the harvesting process. At least eight laborers rode along on the machines and removed debris from the picked fruit.

In 1969, the first successful mechanical harvester picked tomatoes destined for processing as sauce, juice, and stewed tomatoes.

two hands holding three tomatoes, at least two of them oblong; also contains text
The 1968 United States Department of Agriculture Yearbook, Science for Better Living, depicted new machine-harvestable tomato varieties that “all ripen near same time, come from vine easily, and are firm fruited.” The oblong shape reduced rolling and bruising. / THF621135

Today, all processed tomatoes—the canned products you find on grocery store shelves—make their way from field to table via the levers, gears, and conveyor belts of a mechanical harvester. But you can still buy a hand-picked tomato at your local farmers’ market—or grow your own.

The process of growing food still involves planting and nurturing a seed. But exploring agriculture in all its complexity helps us recognize the many effects of human interference in these natural processes—an ever-changing story that affects all our daily lives.


Adapted by Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content, from a film in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation’s Agriculture and the Environment exhibit. The team that wrote and refined the film script included Debra Reid, Curator of Agriculture & the Environment; Ryan Jelso, Associate Curator, Digital Content; Ellice Engdahl, Manager, Digital Collections & Content; and Aimee Burpee, Associate Registrar—Special Projects.

Henry Ford Museum, farming equipment, food, farms and farming, by Saige Jedele, agriculture

Pumpkins offer the perfect opportunity to connect art with agricultural science.

All pumpkins are plants classified within one of five domesticated species of squash (genus Cucurbita). All are native to the Americas. Indigenous people domesticated them and improved them over generations by saving seeds and tending the next crop. Great variety exists because of this long and ongoing process. The histories of heritage varieties within genus Cucurbita acknowledge this legacy.

The following items within The Henry Ford’s collections add some complexity to the great pumpkin story.

Man bends over pumpkins at the base of a group of cornstalks tied together in a field
Corn and Pumpkins at Firestone Farm, October 2, 2021 / Photo by Debra A. Reid

Connections Between Pumpkins (Squash) and Corn


Today, the story of the “three sisters”—corn, squash, and beans—reminds us of the indigenous origins of these three staple crops. The rest of the story acknowledges the ways that colonization destroyed indigenous cultures, and the ways that Euro-American agriculture co-opted selective agricultural practices over time. Great variation exists across regions and time. From this vantage point, the cultivation of pumpkins with corn represents a strategy adopted by Euro-Americans, especially in the northeastern and midwestern United States. Their goal focused on feeding themselves and their livestock.

The degree to which farm families grew pumpkins changed over time and differed depending on region of the country. A correspondent to the Michigan Farmer and Western Agriculturalist argued that “the practice of planting pumpkins in the same hill as corn, is not the best. What is gained in the pumpkin is lost in the corn. Where there is a thrifty pumpkin vine, there will be meagre ears of corn” [Eli Wooden, Pulaski, Michigan, May 8, 1843, published in Vol. 1, No. 7 (May 15, 1843), page 49].

Card with text and illustration of boy holding an absurdly large ear of corn, with regular-sized corn and a pumpkin in a field behind him
Trade Card for Niagara Corn Starch, Wesp, Lautz Bros. & Co., 1880-1900 / THF670205

Others advocated intercropping. Promotional material for the Triumph hand-operated corn planter urged farmers to purchase a pumpkin seed attachment so they could plant their pumpkins at the same time they planted their corn. “It takes no extra time or labor to plant Pumpkin Seeds when you are planting corn with Kent’s Triumph Planter. It takes no extra ground, no extra care.” In fact, as manufacturer A. C. Kent explained, “No farmer can afford to do without one.” The card described a bountiful pumpkin crop as excellent cattle feed. “Cows fed on them will give rich milk and fine flavored yellow butter,” and the material further asserted that cows fed no pumpkin rations would give neither.

Farmhouse yard with wagon full of pumpkins, man milking cow, and woman carrying pumpkin, among other things; also contains text
Trade Card for Triumph Corn Planter with Pumpkin Seed Attachment, A. C. Kent Company, circa 1885 / THF208298

The intercropping of squash and corn served a purpose, but worked best in certain conditions. Corn and squash both need nitrogen, which beans (a legume) help the soil retain. Removing beans from the equation leaves two nitrogen-hungry crops competing for limited quantities in the same soil. Squash and corn plants both need large quantities of phosphorus, too, and squash vines also need potassium to thrive.

Two men in field, one bending down to examine a pumpkin
Farming Pumpkins in Indiana, 1920-1929, detail / THF149097

Farmers already practicing intensive animal husbandry could manure their intercropped fields with composted organic manure—preferably pig, chicken, or sheep manure with higher concentrations of nitrogen and other nutrients. This enriched the soil with the nutrients needed to yield a field of pumpkins and corn, as the detail above from a Keystone stereograph, “Farming Pumpkins in Indiana,” shows. Farmers that did not practice intensive animal husbandry needed to plan for decreased yields if they persisted in intercropping corn and squash. Mechanizing the corn harvest, a process that started in earnest during the 1920s, eliminated the tradition of planting squash in corn fields.

Agricultural science factored heavily into farmer decisions, but romantic notions of the pumpkin-corn relationship persisted largely because of associations expressed through poetry and adopted as part of regional popular culture.

Massachusetts abolitionist and poet John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892) waxed eloquent about the pumpkin in the context of corn fields and harvest rituals in “The Pumpkin,” likely written in 1844, and published in Poems by John G. Whittier (1849).

When wild, ugly faces we carved in its skin,

Glaring out through the dark with a candle within!

When we laughed round the corn-heap, with hearts all in tune

Our chair a broad pumpkin – our lantern the moon…


Indiana poet James Whitcomb Riley (1853–1916) further popularized the connections between pumpkins and corn fields with his poem, “When the Frost is on the Pun’kin,” published in 1888. Riley cast the rituals involved with fall harvest—“the gathering time,” as he called it—as fulfilling and regenerative practices. All occurred within the context of corn shocks with pumpkins stacked at their base, likely positioned there for a few days for the rind to “harden” prior to transport either to a storage bin or to market. An educational stereograph emphasized these connections by featuring verses from both Whittier’s and Riley’s poems.

Horse-drawn wagon filled with pumpkins with several people inside
Wagon Carrying Pumpkins at the Ten Eyck Farm, Dearborn, Michigan, circa 1905 / THF149092

The harvest really started the process of marketing the golden pumpkin. Processing pumpkin and squash is time-consuming. During the late-nineteenth century, canning technology created new commercial opportunities for farmers who contracted with canning companies to raise field pumpkins. The canners packed pumpkin and squash pulp into cans and decorated them with colorful labels that indicated the contents: “golden pumpkin.” An illustrated children’s book, The Pearl and the Pumpkin (c. 1904), featured a canner seeking choice pumpkins whose quest was disrupted by carving pumpkins for Hallowe’en.

Colorful and intricate label with images of pumpkin and butterfly; also contains text
Can Label, "Butterfly Brand Golden Pumpkin," 1880-1895 / THF113859

Cultivars of Cucurbita


Almost all summer squash fall within the Cucurbita pepo or C. pepo variety. Humans consider them most edible when immature—that is, before their rind hardens and seeds form. But mature summer squash can be stored for short periods of time and can be used for livestock feed. The Connecticut field pumpkin, the go-to for many canning companies, is also C. pepo.

The crookneck squash, a native of the eastern United States, makes an appearance in John Greenleaf Whittier’s ode, “The Pumpkin.” The crookneck grows on bush-type vines, yields edible fruit within 43 days of planting, and has either a warty or a smooth rind that protects a firm interior noted for its buttery and sweet flavor.

Black-and-white image of women, perhaps in some type of uniform, holding vegetables up in each hand
Two Members of the Woman's National Farm and Garden Association Feature Crookneck Squash while the Woman in the Middle Displays Two Cabbages, 1918 / THF288950

The pattypan squash, also known by many other names (including scallop squash), grows on bush-type vines, starts to yield about 50 days after planting, and produces squash for weeks. Gardeners hauled these attractive squash to market, as seen in the left foreground of this photograph of street vendors at Richmond, Virginia’s Sixth Street Market. The squash, along with watermelon, other melons, and sweet corn, affirmed the bounty of summer.

Men sitting and standing by large piles of vegetables at the edge of a street with horses and wagons behind them
Sixth Street Market, Richmond, Va., 1908-1909 / THF278870

Winter squash species of Cucurbita are meant to be harvested only when fully mature. The largest of these species, C. maxima, includes one of the most marketable of all squash, the Boston Marrow. It takes approximately 105 days to mature and weighs around 15 pounds on average.

Seed packet with text and image of gourd-shaped greenish-yellow squash
Hiram Sibley & Co. "Squash Boston Marrow" Seed Packet, Used in the C.W. Barnes Store, 1882-1888 / THF278982

Seed companies described the Boston Marrow as having “excellent flavor” (from a Hiram Sibley Co. seed packet) and being unsurpassed in sweetness (from the D.M. Ferry & Co. 1882 catalog, page 56). The flavor, much celebrated, got the attention of canning companies from coast to coast. Olney & Floyd, located near markets swayed by the Boston Marrow’s reputation, featured the squash on its label. Across the country, the California-based Del Monte brand included a prototypical Boston Marrow on its “Squash” label, but the generic name implied the inclusion of other pie-worthy squash.

Red can label with image of butterfly and bulbous yellow squash; also contains text
Can Label, "Butterfly Brand Boston Marrow Squash," 1890-1920 / THF294193

The Hubbard squash, another C. maxima, gained market share during the late-nineteenth century. Seed purveyors, including Detroit seed company D. M. Ferry, described it as “the best winter squash known … sweet and rich flavored” and “as good baked as the sweet potato” (page 56). A polychrome print in D. M. Ferry’s 1882 seed catalogue included a dark-green Hubbard among the “12 best varieties of Vegetables.” The illustration did not do justice to the squash, however, which averaged around 15 pounds, but could top scales at 50 pounds.

Page with text and a variety of vegetables and fruits
D.M. Ferry & Co.'s Seed Annual Descriptive Catalogue, 1882 / THF620064

Winter squash could survive months in storage. Research by horticulturalists hoped to extend that life to take advantage of higher market prices during late-winter months. William Stuart of the Vermont Experiment Station in Burlington recorded changes in weight and moisture levels for one ton of Hubbard squash to document best storage practices. He explained that farmers could minimize loss by harvesting the squash only when they were fully matured. He advised farmers to cut the fruit from the vine, leaving the stem attached, and to “harden” the fruit for two to three days in the field before moving them to storage bins. Farmers needed to handle their harvest “as one would handle eggs” because breaking stems or bruising them would hasten decay. Such care could return $50 per ton at market during February and March, compared to $15 to $20 per ton during the fall harvest season (“Storage of Hubbard Squash,” Farmers’ Bulletin 342: Experiment Station Work XLIX (1908), pages 18–19).

How Big Does Your C. maxima Grow?


Three men hoist a very large pumpkin onto a cart containing more large pumpkins as another person watches from the driver's seat
Prize Pumpkins, Yakima Valley, Washington, 1904 / THF122617

Agricultural publications often celebrated exceptionally large squash. The Michigan Farmer noted “A MAMMOTH squash” weighing 126 pounds was displayed at the Horticultural Exhibition in New Haven, Connecticut [Vol. 1, no. 17 (October 16, 1843), pg. 133]. Might the MAMMOTH squash have been a Mammoth Gold or other member of C. maxima? Was Charlie Brown’s great pumpkin a Mammoth Gold?

Book cover with text and image of Snoopy dancing on a pumpkin in a field with other characters in Halloween costumes nearby
It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, 1967 / THF610382

Heritage Cucurbita


Concerns about the preservation and perpetuation of indigenous squash and other Cucurbita cultivars led to the formation of Native Seeds/SEARCH in 1983. Volunteers collected and preserved endangered traditional seeds from the Southwest. Today the Native Seeds/SEARCH seed bank includes nearly 2,000 crops suited to arid southwestern North America, from Colorado to central Mexico. This area factored prominently in domestication of Cucurbita, and the urgency to understand biodiversity in context has only increased in the decades since its founding.

Today, Native Seeds/SEARCH remains committed to seed preservation and propagation, but also emphasizes the knowledge required to grow them. Adapting crops to ensure sustainable ecosystems and food security into the future now represents the mission of Native Seeds/SEARCH:

The resilience of our food systems depends on agricultural biodiversity, as farmers and plant breeders can draw on the myriad genetic combinations as raw materials to develop new varieties better adapted to an uncertain and changing environment. Climate change, water scarcity, new and more virulent crop pests and diseases—all of these troubling trends currently threatening our food security require a wide pool of genetic diversity to prevent catastrophic crop failure and famine.

Hopefully these variations on Cucurbita inspire you to learn more.

Sources

Michigan Farmer and Western Agriculturalist. 1843.

[Riley, James Whitcomb]. “When the Frost is on the Punkin,” in “The Old Swimmin’-hole” and ‘Leven More Poems by Benj. F. Johnson, of Boone. Sixth Ed. Indianapolis, Indiana: The Bowen-Merrill Co., 1888. Pages 31-33.

West, Paul [Clarendon] and W. W. Denslow. The Pearl and the Pumpkin. New York: G. W. Dillingham, around 1904.

Whittier, John Greenleaf. “The Pumpkin,” in Poems of John G. Whittier, illustrated by H. Billings. Boston: Benjamin B. Mussey & Co., 1849; Boston: Sanborn, Carter & Bazin, 1855. Pages 329-330.


Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford.

farms and farming, by Debra A. Reid, agriculture