Mechanized Farming

If you brought a couple of farmers from a hundred years ago onto a modern farm, they'd be amazed at how much fancy equipment and technology are involved. From tractors that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to drones and combine harvesters, modern equipment is omnipresent in most farming operations worldwide. Tools and plows are not new to farming, but starting during the Green Revolution, a boom in the sales of farming equipment and machines changed the face of agriculture for good. Continue reading to learn about mechanized farming and its impact on farming.

Mechanized Farming Mechanized Farming

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Table of contents

    Mechanized Farming Definition

    Before modern times, farming was a very labor-intensive process. Dozens of people had to work fields that now might need only one farmer to manage. A key innovation leading to this boost in productivity is mechanized farming. Advanced powered machines and motor-driven vehicles like tractors replaced hand tools and the use of animals to pull farming implements.

    Mechanized farming: The use of machinery that replaces human or animal labor in agriculture.

    Basic tools like shovels or sickles are not considered to be mechanized farming implements because they still require manual labor. Plows in and of themselves are also typically not included under the mechanized farming umbrella because for thousands of years they were powered by horses or oxen. Farming operations that still use animals for this are not considered mechanized.

    Characteristics of Mechanized Farming

    Returning to our farmers from one hundred years ago, what did their farms look like? If you just looked at the fields, probably not much different: rows of neatly planted crops, an innovation from the Second Agricultural Revolution. The stark difference comes once you look at how those crops were planted, how they're maintained, and how they're harvested.

    Mechanized Farming Farm animals equipment StudySmarterFig. 1 - Farm animals used to plow a field in France, 1944

    These farmers probably used animals to pull a plow and seed drill and had their families go through the field and pull weeds and kill pests. Farming in many places looks different today thanks to agrochemicals and mechanized farming that came out of the Green Revolution. Some of the characteristics of mechanized farming are discussed next.

    Dominant in Commercial Farming Operations

    Today, commercial farms are universally mechanized in some form or another. Modern mechanical equipment is essential to making farms profitable because they lower labor costs and save time. This stands in contrast to subsistence farms, whose purpose is primarily to feed the farmer and their families/communities. Subsistence farming is dominant in less developed countries, where there may not be the capital to purchase tractors or other equipment in the first place. The high costs of farm equipment pose a barrier to entry towards mechanizing farms, and it's a cost that can typically only be offset by revenue from selling crops.

    Greater Productivity

    The mechanization of farms doesn't just mean the work is easier—it means fewer people are needed to grow the same amount of food. By reducing the time to plant and harvest as well as the number of people needed to work a farm, they subsequently are far more productive. Crop yields increase from mechanization too. Special equipment to plant seeds and harvest crops reduce the human error involved. Combined with agrochemicals, machines like crop dusters can cover a great area and prevent pests from harming crops.

    Mechanized Farming Equipment

    Different types of equipment are used for various purposes on mechanized farms. Let's discuss a few significant types of mechanized farming equipment below.

    Tractor

    No agricultural machine is more ubiquitous than the tractor. At its core, a tractor is a vehicle that provides high pulling power at slow speeds. The first tractors were little more than an engine and wheels with a steering wheel, but today are cutting-edge machines with advanced computing. Tractors are primarily used to pull plows that till the soil and equipment that plants seeds. Before the invention of engines, animals or humans had to move farm equipment. Engines are far more powerful than humans or animals, so they work much faster and more efficiently.

    Innovations in electric and autonomous vehicles are not impacting just cars but are also changing the face of mechanized farming. Small startups and major corporations like John Deere are investing in electric tractors and other farm equipment. Right now, certain farming operations like harvesting or planting are fully autonomous, requiring a farmer on board the tractor simply to monitor. By harnessing computer power and programs, farms can efficiently carry out their day-to-day operations.

    Combine Harvester

    Sometimes just referred to as a combine, combine harvesters are designed to harvest various crops. The word "combine" comes from the fact that it performs numerous operations at once which otherwise are performed separately. The first combines originated during the Second Agricultural Revolution, but advances in technology during the Green Revolution made them even more effective and more accessible to mass produce. Today's combines are incredibly complex machines, with dozens of sensors and computers integrated to ensure the best function.

    Harvesting wheat, the ingredient for making flour, used to involve several individual steps and machines. First, it would have to be physically cut from the ground (reaped), then threshed to remove the edible part from its stalk. Finally, the outer casing needs to be separated in a process called winnowing. Modern wheat combine harvesters do all this at once, producing the final wheat grain product that the farmers can sell.

    Sprayer

    Often used with a tractor, sprayers distribute agrochemicals like pesticides and fertilizers over a field. Current crop sprayers have built-in sensors and computers that can change how much agrochemicals are sprayed and even know if an area has already received enough agrochemicals. This innovation allows for the effective use of pesticides that also minimizes the environmental risks from overuse.

    Mechanized Farming Crop sprayer StudySmarterFig. 3 - Modern crop sprayer

    Prior to the Green Revolution, rudimentary pesticides and fertilizers had to be distributed by hand, creating more health risks for the worker and potentially adding too many agrochemicals.

    Mechanized Farming Examples

    Next, let's see what mechanized farming looks like in a couple of countries.

    United States

    Agriculture in the United States is almost exclusively commercial and as such, is highly mechanized. It's home to some of the world's largest agricultural machinery firms like John Deere, Massey Ferguson, and Case IH. The US is home to many universities that conduct research in agricultural technology and is at the cutting edge of finding ways to improve and develop mechanization.

    India

    India greatly benefited from the Green Revolution, which spread the use of agrochemicals and mechanized farming. Today, its farming operations are increasingly mechanized, and it is the largest producer of tractors in the world. Despite this, many small farms in India still use animals and other by-hand traditional farming practices. Because increased productivity helps drive down the price of crops, there's been tension from poorer farmers who are seeing their income cut into by mechanization.

    Disadvantages of Mechanized Farming

    Not everything is positive for mechanized farming, however. While mechanized farming has enabled a massive boost in the amount of food available on the planet, it still has its shortcomings.

    Not All Processes Can Be Mechanized

    For some crops, mechanizing is simply impossible or isn't effective enough to justify. Plants like coffee and asparagus ripen at different times and require harvesting once ripe, so a machine can't come through and harvest all at once. For these types of crops, there's currently no replacement for human labor when it comes to harvesting.

    Mechanized Farming Coffee harvest StudySmarterFig. 3 - Workers harvesting coffee in Laos

    Another process that hasn't seen mechanization is pollination. Bees and other insects are still the best way for plants to pollinate. However, some farms maintain bee colonies to make the process more reliable. Generally, however, the process of planting is able to be mechanized for all crops.

    Unemployment and Social Tension

    The increased productivity from mechanization has allowed food to become more readily available and affordable but also caused unemployment for agricultural workers. Under any circumstances, increased unemployment creates hardship and economic difficulty for people and regions. If there's no government response in helping people find employment in other industries, these issues are exasperated.

    In some communities, the way they grow food is a way of life and essential to their sense of place. How seeds are planted and crops harvested might be tied to religious beliefs or celebrations that run counter to modern technology. Even if people choose to forgo adopting mechanization, they face pressure to compete with commercial operations that are far more productive owing to mechanization.

    Mechanized Farming - Key takeaways

    • Agriculture using modern powered equipment instead of animals or human labor is called mechanized farming.
    • During the Green Revolution, mechanization significantly increased, resulting in higher crop yields and productivity.
    • Several innovations in mechanized farming include the tractor, combine harvester, and sprayer.
    • While more food is produced today than ever owing to mechanization, some crops still require significant human labor, and agricultural workers' unemployment is an issue.

    References

    1. Fig. 3: Workers harvesting coffee (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Coffee_Harvest_Laos.jpg) by Thomas Schoch (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Mosmas) is licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Mechanized Farming

    What is mechanized farming? 


    Mechanized farming is the practice of using powered machinery in agriculture as opposed to human labor or animals.

    What effect did mechanized farming have on the environment? 


    Mechanized farming has had positive and negative impacts on the environment. Positively, it's allowed for more precise use of agrochemicals, meaning less ends up polluting the environment. Negatively, mechanized farming has allowed farms to expand and grow, which has harmful impacts on local ecosystems and habitats.

    What was an unexpected consequence of mechanized farming practices? 

    With the increase in crop yields, it meant the prices of crops declined with time. This meant small-scale farmers and other commercial farmers ended up with smaller profit margins even though they were producing more than ever.

    What are the advantages of mechanized farming? 


    The main advantages of mechanized farming are an increase in productivity. More food is produced today than ever thanks to innovations in mechanized farming which has helped curb food insecurity around the world over time.

    What is a negative side effect of mechanized farming?  

    One negative side effect is unemployment. Because less labor is needed to work fields, people who previously worked in agriculture might find themselves out of a job.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Due to mechanized farming, agricultural productivity has:

    Which of the following are innovations that enabled the Green Revolution?

    Which type of agriculture is most likely to see widespread mechanization?

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