sealPurdue News

December 2000

Book chronicles 'agricultural revolution' of 20th century

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – A tiller of the soil in biblical times could have visited a farm in 1900 and felt right at home with the tools in the barn. If he moved his visit forward 100 years the ancient agriculturalist "might think he was on a different planet," say two Purdue University authors.

Don Paarlberg, a professor emeritus from Purdue's Department of Agricultural Economics, and his nephew, Philip Paarlberg, an ag economist in the same department, say farming practices and machinery advanced dramatically in the past century. They chronicle the evolution in their new book, "The Agricultural Revolution of the 20th Century."

The coffee table-type volume is aimed at general audiences. "It's not loaded with statistics; it's loaded with impressions," Philip Paarlberg says.

The book combines words and pictures to create a literary time capsule of what the Paarlbergs describe as the most significant century in agricultural history – a century that birthed gasoline-powered tractors and combines; rural electrification; safer and more effective farm chemicals; and research breakthroughs in biotechnology, among others.

As a result, more food is produced in far less time. "It took about 90 minutes of labor to produce a bushel of corn in 1910. It takes about two minutes now," Philip Paarlberg says.

Not all the history is rosy. The book recounts the land and price depressions of the early 1920s and the post-World War II American farm export slump.

"In the early 20th century there were about 29 million farmers in the United States. Now that number is down to around 1.8 million," Philip Paarlberg says.

The declining farm population brought with it a loss of self-worth, says Don Paarlberg, 89, who also served in the U.S. Department of Agriculture under Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon and Ford.

"Farmers have been reduced to less than 2 percent of the population, and they're losing their identity," Don Paarlberg says. "They're not as sure about their status. The whole rural culture has been eroded."

"The Agricultural Revolution of the 20th Century" also includes a chapter on the century ahead. Don Paarlberg says the next 100 years should bring "profound changes" in germ plasm research, agricultural communications, and a shift in migration from urban to rural areas.

About half of the book's 172 pages are photos. Most come from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Purdue, J.C. Allen & Sons and Paarlberg family collections. One circa 1930 photo shows Don Paarlberg and Philip Paarlberg's father, Horace, on a cabbage wagon.

The Paarlbergs spent three years researching, writing and choosing photos for the book. The idea for "The Agricultural Revolution" came from a daily coffee klatch Don Paarlberg attends with other aging farmers.

"This book is largely for nostalgia lovers," Don Paarlberg says.

"The Agricultural Revolution of the 20th Century" is published by Iowa State University Press. It retails for $54.95 and is available at selected bookstores or through the publisher by calling (800) 862-6657.

Sources: Philip Paarlberg, (765) 494-4251;

Don Paarlberg, (765) 463-6654

Writer: Steve Leer, (765) 494-8415,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

Review copies of "The Agricultural Revolution of the 20th Century" are available from Iowa State University Press at (515) 292-0140 ext. 617. The book's ISBN number is 0-8138-2198-3. Also, a photograph of the book cover is available at the ftp site. It is called

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