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Fall a perfect time to reflect on how far farming has come

November is moving along to its end, as another year nears its close.

Our farming ancestors, particularly the pioneer farmers who arrived in the Fox Valley in the 1830s and who created comfortable lives in this rich agricultural area, lived by the seasons. Late summer and autumn were harvest seasons, late summer for the “small grains” of wheat, oats, barley, and rye, and autumn for the corn harvest.

Driving around the countryside these days, you’ll see farmers’ giant combined harvesters working their way through whatever fields of corn they managed to plant during this year’s extraordinarily wet spring as the harvest of 2019 draws to a close.

But our pioneer farm ancestors had no such complicated machinery to rely on. In those days of settlement and the decades immediately after, farm work was for the most part hand work, helped a bit by animal power. Arriving on the Illinois prairie from their homes somewhere east, farmers first had to turn the dense sod over so the ground could be worked and a crop planted.

When those earliest farmers got here, they mostly relied on a single tool to till their land, the walking plow pulled by a team of horses, mules, or oxen. Such plows usually consisted of a cast-iron plowshare or blade designed to cut into the soil and a wooden moldboard that turned the soil over. Some plows had cast iron moldboards, and others had a fixed coulter, a blade that sliced into the soil immediately in front of the plowshare to make a cleaner furrow.

While cast iron plows worked in the generally thin soils east of the Ohio River, they didn’t work well with the rich loam out here on the prairie, where the soil tended to cake onto shares and moldboards alike. John Deere, a blacksmith and farmer out in Grand Detour, Ill. had the bright idea of making both plowshare and moldboard out of steel instead of cast iron (he used a broken reciprocating sawmill blade). Steel, unlike the cast iron share and moldboard, proved to be self-polishing as it moved through the rich prairie soil, greatly reducing the effort it took to plow fields.

But for the first few years, the iron plow was about the only machine a farmer had to till his soil. The plow not only turned the soil in the spring, but was then used to cultivate the rows of planted corn. Often, corn was “checked,” or planted in equidistant hills so it could be cultivated by plowing perpendicular and diagonally to the direction the rows were planted. Gradually, farmers added other simple machines such as the drag harrow to help prepare fields for planting.

Although preparing fields, planting them, and tending them until corn or the small grains were high enough to choke out weeds was labor-intensive, it didn’t hold a candle to the labor it took to harvest the grain those fields produced. The lengthy small grain harvest began when the fields were judged ripe enough. Using a scythe with a cradle made of thin wooden fingers attached, the grain was cut, the farmer skillfully slicking the grain stalks with the scythe blade and catching them on the cradle’s fingers. Then with a deft move, the grain was laid down on the ground. These rows of cut grain then were gathered and tied into bundles 8-10 inches in diameter using stalks of grain to tie them. The bundles were then gathered into tightly and neatly stacked shocks to finish drying. A cleverly shaped roof of grain bundles was added to each shock to shed rainwater. After drying in the field, the bundles were all brought to the farmstead and put in groups on the wooden threshing floor in the barn. There, they were beaten with flails to remove the grain from the stalks. The straw was picked up and stacked in either a straw stack or up in the barn’s haymow for later use as livestock bedding. The grain on the threshing floor was not yet ready, however, because it had to be winnowed by tossing it in the air so that the lightweight chaff would separate from the heavier kernels of grain. Only then could the grain be shoveled into bins or bagged for market. In all, it took 250 to 300 hours of labor to produce 100 bushels of wheat or any other small grain.

Which is why farmers became so interested in mechanizing as much farm labor as they could. The first part of the small grain harvest to be mechanized was cutting the grain in the field. In 1833, Obed Hussey patented a horse-pushed reaper that cut grain so it could be bundled. But the next year, Cyrus McCormick patented a horse-drawn reaper that proved far more successful. McCormick kept improving his machine, which he licensed for manufacture all over the United States. One of the small factories that manufactured McCormick Reapers under license was at the Townsend farm on modern Grove Road south of Oswego. Gradually, others greatly improved reapers, including the Marsh Brothers here in Kendall County. By the 1860s, mechanical threshers were being introduced, and by the mid-1870s steam-powered threshers combined with harvesters that could mechanically bind bundles of grain—called binders—were greatly improving productivity.

By 1890, it only took 40 to 50 hours to produce 100 bushels of wheat—and that was before the great mechanical revolution in farming began in the early 20th Century. Today, it takes less than three hours to produce 100 bushels of wheat, right around 100 times less than it took our pioneer ancestors to do the same thing.

This year’s small grain harvest—which in this day and age largely consists of soybeans—has been over for a while now, and the corn harvest is either done or nearing completion for most Fox Valley farmers. But as you drive through the countryside this autumn watching big harvest machines make the rounds in fields up and down the valley, it’s a good time to reflect on just how far farming has advanced from the days when farmers made do with a plow and a horse and a scythe and cradle to produce their crops.

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