Agriculture and Farm Machinery Throughout the Years

Agriculture has evolved in numerous ways throughout history. Here's an in-depth look at the evolution of agriculture and farm machinery throughout the years.

Published on
March 16, 2021 12:11:57 PM PDT March 16, 2021 12:11:57 PM PDTth, March 16, 2021 12:11:57 PM PDT

Agriculture has been around since the dawn of time, but if you look at the ways we farmed in the past and compare them to how we do things today, the differences are astounding. Farmers own larger stretches of land, bigger, more efficient machinery, and use innovative farming methods that previous farmers had little to no knowledge of, such as gene editing or vertical farming. The evolution of farming and farm machinery has allowed for the cultivation of more land, higher-quality produce, and less back-breaking labor for farmers, among other notable benefits and improvements.

As more innovations are made and agriculture evolves further, who knows what kind of brilliant feats we could accomplish? In this guide on agriculture and farm machinery throughout the years, we'll explain how the science of agriculture and farm machinery has changed over the years and how these changes have benefitted the farmers of today.

The Evolution of Agriculture as a Science

Humans have been growing produce and domesticating animals for almost as long as we've existed. The science of agriculture began and developed in unique ways across the globe, with farmers domesticating different crops and animals depending on the climate, soil quality, and availability of various species. The earliest crops consisted mainly of wild grains, which humans started collecting and eating over 105 thousand years ago. The Neolithic founder crops—emmer wheat, einkorn wheat, hulled barley, peas, lentils, bitter vetch, chickpeas, and flax—were cultivated in the Levant sometime around 9500 BC.

From there, different regions began gradually domesticating new crops and animals. In 6200 BC, farmers in ancient China domesticated rice, mung, soy, and azuki beans. The Mesopotamia region, which is home to modern-day Iraq, Kuwait, Turkey, and Syria, domesticated pigs and sheep, while cattle were domesticated in the areas that would eventually become Turkey and India.

It wasn't until the Bronze Age that agriculture started to intensify. Regions such as Mesopotamian Sumer, ancient Egypt, the Indus Valley civilization, ancient China, and ancient Greece all started farming on a larger scale during this time. The Iron Age resulted in some of the earliest innovations in agriculture. Citizens from Rome, the ancient Mediterranean, and Western Europe built upon existing systems of agriculture and established the manorial system that became the bedrock of medieval architecture.

During the Middle Ages, agriculture benefitted from the implementation of new techniques and the diffusion of crop plants, which led to the introduction of sugar, rice, cotton, and fruit trees. It wasn't until after the voyages of Christopher Columbus that New World crops, including maize, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and manioc, were brought to Europe, and Old World crops—including wheat, barley, rice, turnips, and livestock such as horses, cattle, sheep, and goats—were brought to the Americas.

After the Neolithic Revolution, irrigation, crop rotation, and fertilizers were introduced to the agriculture world. The invention of crop rotation was especially valuable. Farmers quickly realized that repeatedly growing the same crop on the same piece of land depleted the soil of nutrients. To avoid a decrease in soil fertility, they started practicing crop rotation by planting different crops in a regular sequence. The nutrients that were depleted by the growth of one crop were restored by planting a different crop that could return the necessary nutrients to the soil.

In ancient Roman, African, and Asian cultures, crop rotation was a common practice. During the Middle Ages, farmers in Europe practiced a three-year crop rotation method, with rye or winter wheat grown during the first year, spring oats or barley grown during the second, and no crops grown during the third. The British agriculturalist Charles Townshend popularized a four-crop rotation method in the 18th century, which involved rotations of wheat, barley, turnips, and clover. This method was brought to the United States by George Washington Carver.

In recent years, human labor has been steadily replaced by mechanization, with synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and selective breeding aiding in the production of high-quality and mass-produced crops. The concept of organic farming is another recent invention and is highly likely to gain traction and become more advanced over time.

The Evolution of Farm Machinery

To fully understand agriculture and farm machinery throughout the years, you have to focus on both the science and the tools. As our methods for farming evolved and the number of domesticated crops and animals available to farmers grew, the tools and machinery used for agriculture advanced as well. The earliest farming tools—flint axes, sickles, and pitchforks—were a reliable option for tending to smaller fields, but as the amount of farmland that each farmer owned increased, there was a rush to create more efficient tools for cultivating the land and caring for livestock. Let's take a look at some of the key agricultural inventions over the past few centuries and how they helped make different processes easier and more efficient for farmers.

Grain Elevators

Farmers used to handle their grain in bags as opposed to in bulk. As one might expect, this wasn't very convenient. The first grain elevator, built by Joseph Dart in 1842, was designed to make stockpiling and storing grain more efficient. The earliest grain elevators were constructed from framed or cribbed wood, which made them prone to fires. Today, most grain elevators are made from steel or reinforced concrete, and there are now close to 10,000 grain elevators across the United States. Over half of them are located in the top ten farming states, which includes California, Iowa, Nebraska, Texas, Minnesota, Illinois, Kansas, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Indiana.

Milking Machines

The process of hand-milking cows and other milk-producing animals is time-consuming and inefficient. The milking machine, patented by Anna Baldwin in 1879, was designed to streamline the process. Anna Baldwin's milking machine consisted of a vacuum device that was connected to a hand pump. Despite being one of the earliest American patents, it wasn't particularly successful. More practical versions of the milking machine were invented later. For example, automatic milking machines, also known as voluntary milking machines, became commercially available in the 1990s.

Cotton Harvesters

The first cotton harvester was patented in 1859 but wasn't popularized until the 1940s. Mechanical cotton harvesters come in two types: strippers and pickers. The stripper removes opened and unopened bolls from the plant, along with leaves and stems. The cotton gin removes any unwanted material from the picked cotton. The pickers remove cotton from open bolls, leaving the bur on the plant. The spindles penetrate the plants, and the cotton fibers are removed by a doffer. Finally, the cotton is delivered to a basket that's carried above the machine. This piece of machinery, much like the cotton gin, made it easier to pick and separate the cotton from the plant.


It used to take a family an entire day to harvest their crops. The invention of the combine changed that, allowing them to harvest an entire crop field in mere seconds. The first functional combine was designed by Hiram Moore and John Hascall of Kalamazoo County, Michigan. It was driven by mules, horses, or oxen and featured many of the same components as the modern combine. The combine only continued to evolve from there. Inventors worked on streamlining the harvesting process and creating new versions of the combine, including ones that were steam-powered, tractor-pulled, and self-propelled. The majority of today's combines are rotary combines, which offer multi-crop threshing, rotary separation, and other optional equipment, including data collection and touchscreen monitors.

Similar to the equipment in agriculture, tractor tires have evolved significantly over the years. The earliest tractors were outfitted with heavy, steel wheels that made for a loud and uncomfortable driving experience. The invention of pneumatic tires made tractor driving a much more pleasant experience. It also provided farmers with tires that could be used on both the farm and the road, wasted less fuel, and could handle more wear and tear, including damages presented by inclement weather and less-than-ideal road conditions. Dawson Tire & Wheel knows how important innovation is to agriculture, which is why we provide innovative, high-quality agricultural wheels to farmers who are looking to improve their equipment's efficiency and streamline their workday. Come and shop with us today!