Autumn Harvest: Then and Now


Farmers across the U.S. reap crops all year long, but harvest season is most closely associated with the fall. In fact, the word ‘harvest’ even comes from the Old English word for ‘autumn.’

We celebrate the Harvest Moon each September. This year, it’s in its full autumnal glory on September 24th. So as the weather turns cooler and just about everything becomes available in pumpkin-spice flavor, we’d like to acknowledge and thank the American farm and farmer.

Scurvy, Squanto & Squash: Farming in America’s Hometown

Plymouth, Massachusetts is America’s Hometown. At least that what’s written across all their police cars.

Now, not only were the Pilgrims NOT responsible for bringing farming to the Americas, they were clueless about how to grow their own food here. They left England without much, including any knowledge or experience farming the type of land they were about to settle.

Native Americans had been growing crops on US soil for generations. And thanks to a Pawtuxet man – a Native American named Squanto – the Pilgrims learned how to grow native crops like corn and tap maple trees for sap.

They likely wouldn’t have survived the first few years without him.

Ironically, the rest of Squanto’s tribe died. The Patuxet became extinct in 1622, after a series of plagues like smallpox wiped out much of the Native American Population of Southeastern Massachusetts.

The Farming Frontier: Clearing a Path Across America

In early American life, family farms were just that: farms to grow food for your family. But as the United States expanded, agriculture became big business.

As the U.S. population grew and more land was explored, people migrated west. Through the Homestead Act of 1862, almost half a million new farming families were granted land. The US government encouraged the expansion with farming grants and land.

Around 400,000 Americans got help from Washington to clear land, set up farms and keep America moving west. The opportunity to own land was such a strong draw, that some enterprising Americans flocked to farms without much experience on how to actually … farm.

Regardless of experience, American farms moved forward. A sea change from family farming to commercial farming had begun. There was a marked shift from growing food to eat to growing food to sell. Cotton became the US’s primary export, but other crops like tobacco and cranberries had a market as well.

Farming was good business in the late 1800, and the number of farms almost tripled between 1840 and 1880.

Small Farm Squeeze

In the 1920s, innovations in farming technology helped fuel bigger and bigger farms, causing some smaller family farms to close.

After the war demand became an issue, too. Europe was growing its own food again, and the high prices American farmers had been getting for their goods dropped dramatically. Family farmers who had borrowed money to increase their acreage in earlier years no longer drew sufficient income to repay their loans.

A number of factors added up to farmers struggling.

To help, Franklin Delano Roosevelt introduced the Farm Security Act at the beginning of his presidency. It limited farms’ total output to increase overall profits. This act, and others that were part of The New Deal, stayed in effect through the 1950s. It wasn’t quite enough to fix the problem, though. Since the 50s, the number of farms has declined.

Farm Aid: Pitching in for American Farmers

In a way, Bob Dylan started it all.

During the Live Aid benefit concert in 1985, Bob Dylan posed this question: “Wouldn’t it be great if we did something for our own famers right here in America?” By September 22nd of that same year, the first Farm Aid concert was held in Champaign, Illinois.

Organized by Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, and Neil Young, the first Farm Aid raised $7 million to help family farmers keep their land. The lineup included Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, Neil Young, Billy Joel, Bonnie Raitt, BB King, Loretta Lynn, Roy Orbison, and Tom Petty.

Farm Aid has taken place every year since, and has raised over $50 million to help family farmers. What was once a concert is now a music festival. This year, it takes place in Hartford, Connecticut on September 22nd.

A Resurgence in the Small American Farm

There’s a resurgence in smaller, more traditional farms across the country.

Farmer’s Markets have taken over small towns to big cities, and programs like Community Supported Agriculture connect farms directly to locals who want their produce. Smaller farms and gardens keep diets seasonal, local and use less chemical preservatives.

There’s even a movement to start growing food yourself, encouraging people to turn their yards into gardens. From family gardens to big industry and back again, the American Farm keeps reinventing itself. Have you seen the Urban Farming that’s being done in the heart of major cities like New York? Maybe farming will always adapt to meet changing – and challenging – times. From the pilgrims to the pioneers to the present, the history of America’s farmer is a story of resilience, hard work and a dose of faith.