Secretary of Agriculture Jeremiah Rusk.
Jeremiah M. Rusk of Wisconsin was Secretary of Agriculture in President Benjamin Harrison’s cabinet. As his term ended in 1893, Rusk took a look at what he expected the state of farming to be 100 years hence.
Born in 1830, Rusk begins: “My boyhood was passed on a farm in what was then one of the Western States [Ohio] in the days of the flail and the old-fashioned plow; of the spinning wheel and hand loom, and homemade clothing; when settlers migrated westward in “prairie schooners,” and travelers rode in the mail coach or on the canal boats; when the farmer’s main object was to produce what he needed for his own and his family’s consumption, the home markets being scattered and foreign markets hardly accessible.”
He goes on to describe the changes from those far off days until 1893. U.S. population had increased from 17 million to 62 million, with the most growth in the cities. 1893 was “The age of steam and electricity, of speculation and monopolies, with opportunities for accumulation of wealth never before dreamed of.” This had encouraged the flower of American youth to leave the farm to seek their fortunes in the cities, and their places had been largely taken by immigrants, greatly changing the farming population.
Rusk felt that the changes in agriculture over the past fifty years were nothing, however, compared to what the next one hundred would bring. He believed that the price of land, especially near the cities, would rise to the point that immigration from the ‘Old Country” of poor people seeking cheap land would greatly diminish, while those who still came “…will consist more and more of a few comparatively well-to-do persons.” He was reluctant to predict the worth of land in 1993, but stated that “…the richest inheritance a man can leave his descendants will be a farm of many broad acres in the United States of America.”
Rusk felt that the farm land around every large city “…will be taxed to its utmost capacity to supply the needs and luxuries of the city people.” Because of this, he felt farms near cities would be smaller and more specialized; he mentioned “…glass houses [which] obliterate the seasons, and strawberries and lettuce in midwinter will no longer occasion surprise.” There would be large farms as well, in the hinterlands where land was cheaper, and both the large farms and the smaller, specialized ones would require much better management and “…will tax all the brain power and business qualifications of their owners, and will demand a better education than that of the merchant or the banker, or even the lawyer.” Rusk was convinced that the man who farmed successfully in 1993 “[could] be successful in any career, must command some capital, and be capable of utilizing profitably the labor of his fellows.”
By 1993, the “natural evolution of agriculture” would involve “a survival of the fittest, which will necessarily relegate [inefficient] farmers to the condition of a thrifty peasantry.” These people would have their own homes, with a few acres, but would depend upon wages earned by working for others.
Mr. Rusk believed that farming methods would change based upon scientific principles, although he didn’t think that “…rainfall may be controlled at will by explosives, a theory which will have been itself exploded in company with its twin absurdity, the flying machine.” Oddly, he didn’t “…think it probable that farm implements will be improved very much, although doubtless on the larger farms means will be devised to perform certain operations by electricity or steam.” He acknowledged that farm implements had been revolutionized during the past half-century, but he apparently believed that the machines had then reached such a state of perfection that it was impossible to improve upon them.
Although some were predicting that a steadily increasing population would force the United States to import large quantities of food, Rusk felt that long before 1993, we would grow enough food, but would have “…ceased to export food products to foreign countries, except for a few products in concentrated form. Our trade in farm products will hence be interstate, not international.”
Decrying the continued isolation, dawn to dark labor, bad roads and poor schools of the rural areas, Rusk felt this would be where the most progress would be made in the future. He predicted smaller farms, which would reduce labor, better all-weather roads with “electric motors” [street cars] extending along these roads for several miles out from the cities. There would be a telephone in every farm house and daily mail delivery. Increased prosperity would allow for the improvement of country homes to rival those in the cities and, as the rural population increased, schools and churches would improve.
Rusk winds up by making a pitch for the Department of Agriculture, which had been only recently [February 1889] established, hoping, in light of the growing importance of agriculture in the United States, that Congress and the people would ensure adequate appropriations to fund the new Department.
Secretary Rusk closed by writing: “It would take more eloquence than I have at my command to present a picture of agricultural life a hundred years from now as it exists in my mind, but I trust I have said enough to interest everyone, and to impress upon them the importance of giving agricultural interests due weight in all plans or legislation looking to the future prosperity of our great country.”
I’m sure all farmers would agree with Jeremiah Rusk in these last sentiments, even though many of his predictions turned out to be wildly inaccurate.
After Rusk finished his term as Secretary of Agriculture, he returned to his farm in Wisconsin. A reporter supposedly asked him if he was now engaged in the pursuit of agriculture. “Yes,” he replied, “and that’s just it. I used to ‘farm’ some and made money at it; now I’m engaged in the pursuit of agriculture and can’t make ends meet.”