Agriculture Reference
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wheat (predictions 9.7 and 9.8). Spring wheat is more susceptible to weeds (which increase
water content and cause mold), has shorter harvesting seasons, does not ripen evenly on the
northern prairies, and has more morning dew, which can often delay combining until the
afternoon. All of these features lowered the value of the combine for spring wheat compared
to winter wheat.
Consistent with these facts, combines were adopted in the winter wheat regions of the
Great Plains, just after World War I, but they were not used in the spring wheat areas until
the late 1920s, when the swather was invented. The swather cuts and lays the grain down
on the stubble, suspended above the ground and exposed to the air, allowing it to dry and
ripen quickly. After the grain dries in the “windrow,” it can be picked up by the combine
and threshed. The swather reduced the timeliness costs endemic to the combine, and within
a few years the combine was a fixture on the northern plains as well as on the southern
The combine also reduced the gains from specialized skills
(prediction 9.1). Thresh-
ing crews had been large—usually more than a dozen men. Some of the threshing jobs
required different skills from general farming. The engineer, who maintained the steam en-
gine and kept it running, and the separator man, who acted as his assistant and supervised the
crew feeding the machine, were highly skilled relative to the other laborers and the farmer.
Both had mechanical knowledge that was of little use in other farming stages where steam
was not used. The combine and the gasoline tractor eliminated the need for these skills.
The organization of the turn-of-the-century custom threshing industry is consonant with
the predictions of our model. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,
threshing crews were separate firms that in the aggregate employed hundreds of thousands
of men. In essence, they were highly specialized “factory farms” that focused on a single
production stage. There were great gains from specialization of tasks in this stage and
relatively low monitoring costs for hired labor. In this environment, factory-style threshing
firms could thrive. Threshing was a long stage, but since the wheat yield was not sensitive to
the time of threshing, binding and threshing could be cheaply connected through the market.
Although the farmer had to pay close attention to the timing of reaping and binding so that
severe weather would not damage the wheat, he could be flexible about threshing because the
shocked bundles of wheat could remain unharvested for several months without damage.
The combine extended the growing operation into the harvest stage because it generated
timeliness costs during harvest. When the number of tasks fell to one, eliminating the gains
from specialization, the appropriate farm organization was the family farm.
Sugarcane in Louisiana: Reducing the Extent of the Farm. The growing and process-
ing of sugarcane provides another example of how seasonality and changes in technology
can influence the extent of the farm. Cane was first commercially grown in Louisiana at the
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