Skip to main content Accesibility Help

The Red Queen and the Hard Reds: Productivity Growth in American Wheat, 1800–1940

  • Alan L. Olmstead (a1) and Paul W. Rhode (a2)

Standard treatments of U.S. agriculture assert that, before the 1930s, productivity growth was almost exclusively the result of mechanization rather than biological innovations. This article shows that U.S. wheat production witnessed wholesale changes in varieties and cultural practices during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Without these changes, vast expanses of the wheat belt could not have sustained commercial production and yields everywhere would have plummeted due to the increasing severity of insects, diseases, and weeds. Revised estimates of Parker and Klein’s productivity calculations indicate that biological innovations contributed roughly half of labor-productivity growth between 1839 and 1909.

Hide All
Adusei, Edward O., and Norton, George W.. “The Magnitude of Agricultural Maintenance Research in the USA.” Journal of Production Agriculture 3, no. 1 (1990): 16.
Alston, J. M., Marra, M. C., Pardey, P. G., and Wyatt, T. J.. “Research Returns Redux: A Meta-Analysis of Agricultural R&D Evaluations.” Australian Journal of Agriculture and Resource Economics 44, no. 2 (2000): 185216.
Alston, J. M., and Pardey, P. G.. “Attribution and Other Problems in Assessing the Returns to Agricultural R&D.” Agricultural Economics 25, nos. 2–3 (September 2001): 141–52.
Atack, Jeremy, and Passell, Peter. A New Economic View of American History From Colonial Times to 1940. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1994.
Ball, Carleton R.The History of American Wheat Improvement.” Agricultural History 4, no. 2 (1930): 4871.
Ball, Carleton R., and Allen Clark, J.. “Experiments With Durum Wheat.” U.S. Dept. of Agriculture Bulletin, no. 618 (1918).
Bidwell, Percy Wells, and Falconer, John I.. History of Agriculture in the Northern United States, 1620–1860. Washington, DC: Carnegie Institute of Washington, 1925.
Boss, Andrew, Bassett, L. B., Bull, C. P., et al. “Seed Grain.” In Seventeenth Annual Report, Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station, 363–79. Delano, MN: The Station, 1909.
Buller, A. H. Reginald. Essays on Wheat. New York: Macmillan, 1919.
Bushnell, William R., and Roelfs, Alan P., eds. The Cereal Rusts. Orlando, FL: Academic Press, 1984.
Campbell, C. Lee, and Long, David L.. “The Campaign to Eradicate the Common Barberry in the United States.” In Stem Rust of Wheat: From Ancient Enemy to Modern Foe, edited by Peterson, Paul D., 16–50. St. Paul, MN: APS Press, 2001.
Carleton, Mark Alfred. “The Basis for the Improvement of American Wheats.” U.S. Dept. of Agriculture Division of Vegetable Physiology and Pathology Bulletin, no. 24 (1900).
Carleton, Mark Alfred. “Cereal Rusts of the United States: a Physiological Investigation.” U.S. Dept. of Agriculture Division of Vegetable Physiology and Pathology Bulletin, no. 16 (1899).
Carleton, Mark Alfred. “Hard Wheats Winning Their Way.” In Yearbook, 1914. U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, 391420. Washington, DC: GPO, 1915.
Carrier, Lyman. The Beginnings of Agriculture in America. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1923.
Carroll, Lewis. Through the Looking Glass. Illustrated by Ralph, Steadman. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1973.
Cates, H. R.The Weed Problem in American Agriculture.” In Yearbook 1917. U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, 205. Washington, DC: GPO, 1918.
Chester, K. Starr. “Plant Disease Losses: Their Appraisal and Interpretation.” Plant Disease Reporter. Supplement, no. 193 (1950): 189362.
Clark, J. Allen, and Martin, John H.. “Varietal Experiments With Hard Red Winter Wheats in the Dry Areas of the Western United States.” U.S. Dept. of Agriculture Bulletin, no. 1276 (1925).
Clark, J. Allen, Martin, John H., and Ball, Carleton R.. “Classification of American Wheat Varieties.” United States Department of Agriculture Bulletin, no. 1074 (1922).
Clark, J. Allen, and Quisenberry, K. S.. “Distribution of the Varieties and Classes of Wheat in the United States in 1929.” U.S. Dept. of Agriculture Circular, no. 283 (1933).
Clay, Clarence Albert. A History of Maine Agriculture, 1604–1860. University of Maine Studies, Second Series, 68. Onono, ME: University Press, 1954.
“Climatological Summary for Hays, KS.” [Online], Agricultural Research Center-Hays home page, 9 February 2001. <> (21 February 2001).
Clinton, George Perkins. “Russian Thistle and Some Plants That Are Mistaken for It.” Illinois Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin, no. 39 (1895): 87118.
Cochrane, Willard W. The Development of American Agriculture: a Historical Analysis. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1979.
Collins, Charles W. Ohio, an Atlas. Madison, WI: American Printing & Publishing, Inc., 1975.
Cook, R. James, and Veseth, Roger J.. Wheat Health Management. St. Paul, MN: APS Press, 1991.
Cox, T. S., Shroyer, J. P., Liu Ben-Hui, R. G. Sears, and Martin, T. J.. “Genetic Improvement in Agronomic Traits of Hard Red Winter Wheat Cultivars From 1919–1987.” Crop Science 28 (1988): 756–60.
Craig, Lee A., Haines, Michael R., and Weiss, Thomas. “Development, Health, Nutrition, and Mortality: the Case of the ‘Antebellum Puzzle’ in the United States.” NBER Working Paper Series on Historical Factors in Long Run Growth, Historical paper no. 130, Cambridge, MA, 2000.
Craig, Lee A., Haines, Michael R., and Weiss, Thomas. “U.S. Censuses of Agriculture, by County, 1840–1880.” [computer file] Unpublished files graciously provided by the authors, Dept. of Economics, North Carolina State University, 2000.
Dahms, R. G.Insects Attacking Wheat.” In Wheat Improvement, edited by Quisenberry, K. S. and Reitz, L. P., 411–43. Madison, WI: American Society of Agronomy, 1967.
Dalrymple, Dana G.Changes in Wheat Varieties and Yields in the United States, 1919–1984.” Agricultural History 62, no. 4 (1988): 2036.
“Dickinson Exp Stn, ND (322188) Period of Record Monthly Climate Summary.” [Online], High Plains Regional Climate Center home page, 5 January 2001. <> (21 February 2001).
Dondlinger, Peter Tracy. The Book of Wheat: an Economic History and Practical Manual of the Wheat Industry. New York: Orange Judd, 1908.
Elliott, E. E., and Lawrence, C. W.. “Some New Hybrid Wheats.” Washington Agricultural Experiment Station Popular Bulletin, no. 9 (1908).
Elwood, Robert B., Arnold, Lloyd E., Clarence Schmutz, D., et al. Changes in Technology and Labor Requirements in Crop Production: Wheat and Oats. Studies of Changing Techniques and Employment in Agriculture, Report no. A-10. Philadelphia: Works Progress Administration, 1939.
Fisher, Franklin M., and Temin, Peter. “Regional Specialization and the Supply of Wheat in the United States, 1867–1914.” Review of Economics and Statistics 52, no. 2 (1970): 134–49.
Fletcher, Stevenson Whitcomb. Pennsylvania Agriculture and Country Life, 1640–1840. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1950.
Flint, Charles L.Progress in Agriculture.” In Eighty Years’ Progress of the United States, 2102. New York: New National Publishing House, 1864.
Freeman, E. M., and Stakman, E. C.. “Smuts of Grain Crops.” University of Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin, no. 122 (1911).
Goodman, Lowell R., and Jerry Eidem, R.. The Atlas of North Dakota. Fargo: North Dakota Studies, Inc., 1976.
“Grain and Forage Crops.” North Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station (Fargo) Bulletin, no. 10 (1893).
“Grain and Forage Crops.” North Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station (Fargo) Bulletin, no. 11 (1893).
“GrainGenes.” [Online database], Ver. 1.8+. March 2001. <gopher://> (March 2001).
Griliches, Zvi. “Agriculture: Productivity and Technology.” In International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, vol. 1, 241–45. New York: Macmillan and Free Press, 1968.
Hamilton, Laura M.Stem Rust in the Spring Wheat Area in 1878.” Minnesota History 20, no. 2 (1939): 15664.
Hayami, Yujiro, and Ruttan, Vernon. Agricultural Development: An International Perspective. rev. and exp. ed. Baltim ore: The Johns Hopkins Univ ersity Press, 1985.
“Hays 1 S, KS (143527) Period of Record Monthly Climate Summary.” [Online], High Plains Regional Climate Center home page, 5 January 2001. <> (21 February 2001).
Headlee, T. J., and Parker, J. B.. “The Hessian Fly.” Kansas Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin, no. 188 (1913): 83138.
Hecht, Reuben W., and Barton, Glen Y.. “Gains in Productivity of Farm Labor.” U.S. Dept. of Agriculture Technical Bulletin, no. 1020 (1950).
Hedrick, Ulysses Prentiss. A History of Agriculture in the State of New York. New York: New York Agricultural Society, 1933.
Hibbard, Benjamin Horace. The History of Agriculture in Dane County Wisconsin: a Thesis Submitted for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, University of Wisconsin, 1902. Bulletin of the University of Wisconsin, 101; Economics and Political Science Series 1, no. 2, (1904): 67214. Madison, WI: 1904.
Hind, H. Y.The Agricultural History of Canada.” In Eighty Years’ Progress of British North America, edited by H. Y. Hind, T. C. Keefer, et al., 32–64. Toronto: L. Nichols, 1865.
Hind, H. Y.. Essay on the Insects and Diseases Injurious to Wheat Crops. Toronto: Lovell & Gibson, 1857.
Hughes, Jonathan R. T. American Economic History. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, 1987.
Hyslop, J. A. Losses Occasioned by Insects, Mites, and Ticks in the United States. Washington, DC: United States Bureau of Entomology and Plant Quarantine, Division of Insect Pest Survey and Information, 1938.
Johnson, D. Gale. “Agriculture and the Wealth of Nations.” American Economic Review 87, no. 2 (1997): 112.
Johnson, D. Gale, and Gustafson, Robert L.. Grain Yields and the American Food Supply: an Analysis of Yield Changes and Possibilities. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.
Kiesselbach, T. A.Winter Wheat Investigations.” Nebraska Agricultural Experiment Station Research Bulletin, no. 31 (1925).
Klose, Nelson. America's Crop Heritage: the History of Foreign Plant Introduction by the Federal Government. Ames: Iowa State College Press, 1950.
Klippart, John H. The Wheat Plant: Its Origin, Culture, Growth, Development, Composition, Varieties, Diseases, Etc., Etc. New York: A. O. Moore & Company, 1860.
, Jr. First the Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology, 1942–2000. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
Knopf, Henry A. “Changes in Wheat Production in the United States.” Ph.D. Thesis, Cornell University, 1967.
Large, E. C. The Advance of Fungi. New York: Henry Holt, 1940.
Libecap, Gary, and Hansen, Zeynep Kocabiyik. “‘Rain Follows the Plow’ and Dryfarming Doctrine: The Climate Information Problem and Homestead Failure in the Upper Great Plains, 1890–1925.” This JOURNAL 62, no. 1 (2002): 86120.
Loegering, W. Q., Johnston, C. O., and Hendrix, J. W.. “Wheat Rusts.” In Wheat Improvement, edited by Quisenberry, K. S. and Reitz, L. P., 307–35. Madison, WI: American Society of Agronomy, 1967.
Loomis, Ralph A., and Barton, Glen T.. “Productivity of Agriculture: United States, 1870– 1958.U.S. Dept. of Agriculture Technical Bulletin, no. 1238 (1961).
Malin, James C. Winter Wheat in the Golden Belt of Kansas. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1944.
Marlatt, C. L.The Annual Losses Occasioned by Destructive Insects in the United States.” In Yearbook for 1904, United States Department of Agriculture, 461–74. Washington, DC: GPO, 1905.
Marlatt, C. L.. “The Principal Insect Enemies of Growing Wheat.” Farmers’ Bulletin, no. 132 (1901).
Marlatt, C. L.. “Losses Due to Insects, Part I, Insects as a Check on Agricultural Production and as a Source of Waste to Accumulated Supplies.” Report of the National Conservation Commission, Vol. 3, pp. 301–09, 60th Cong. 2nd Sess. Senate Document No. 676 (1909).
McColloch, James W.The Hessian Fly in Kansas.” Kansas Agricultural Experiment Station Technical Bulletin, no. 11 (1923).
Metcalf, Clell Lee, and Flint, Wesley Pillsbury. Destructive and Useful Insects: Their Habits and Control. 4th ed. New York: McGraw Hill, 1962.
Midwestern Regional Climate Center. “Historical Climate Summaries for Wooster_Exp_Stn, OH.” [Online], Midwest Climate Watch home page, 26 January 2000. <> (21 February 2001).
Miller, J. D., Hosford, R. M., Stack, R. W., et al. “Diseases of Durum Wheat.” In Durum Wheat: Chemistry and Technology, edited by Fabriani, Giuseppe and Lintas, Claudia, 6692. St. Paul, MN: American Association of Cereal Chemists, 1988.
Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station. 1894 Annual Report. St. Paul, MN: Pioneer Press Co, 1895.
Montgomery, E. G.Wheat Breeding Experiments.” Nebraska Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin, no. 125 (1912).
Murray, Stanley N. The Valley Comes of Age: A History of Agriculture in the Valley of the Red River of the North, 1812–1920. Fargo: North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies, 1967.
Norrie, K. H.The Rate of Settlement of the Canadian Prairies, 1870–1911.” This JOURNAL 35, no. 2 (1975): 410–27.
Oerke, Erich-Christain. “Estimated Crop Losses Due to Pathogens, Animal Pests, and Weeds.” In Crop Production and Crop Protection: Estimated Losses in Major Food and Cash Crops, edited by Oerke, Erich-Christain, Dehne, Heinz-Wilhelm, Schönbeck, Fritz, et al., 72741. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 1994.
Ohio State Board of Agriculture. Annual Report for the Year 1857. Columbus, OH: State Printer, 1858.
Olmstead, Alan L., and Rhode, Paul W.. “Biological Innovation in American Wheat Production: Science, Policy, and Environmental Adaptation.” In Industrializing Organisms, edited by Scranton, Philip. London: Routledge Press, forthcoming.
Pardey, Philip G., Alston, Julian M., Christian, Jason E., et al. Hidden Harvest: U.S. Benefits From International Research Aid. Food Policy Report. Washington, DC: International Food Policy Research Institute, 1996.
Parker, William N. “Agriculture.” In American Economic Growth, Davis, Lance E., Easterlin, Richard A., Parker, William N., et al., 369417. New York: Harper & Row, 1972.
Parker, William N. Europe, America, and the Wider World: Essays on the Economic History of Western Capitalism. America and the Wider World, 2. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Parker, William N.. “Productivity Growth in American Grain Farming: An Analysis of Its 19th-Century Sources.” In The Reinterpretation of American Economic History, edited by Fogel, Robert W. and Engerman, Stanley L., 175–86. New York: Harper & Row, 1971.
Parker, William N., and Klein, Judith. “Productivity Growth in Grain Production in the United States, 1840–60 and 1900–10.” In Output, Employment, and Productivity in the United States After 1800, 523–80. New York: Columbia University Press for NBER, 1996.
Patterson, F. L., and Allan, R. E.. “Soft Wheat Breeding in the United States.” In Soft Wheat: Production, Breeding, Milling, and Uses, edited by Yamazaki, W. T. and Greenwood, C. T., 3641. St. Paul, MN: American Association of Cereal Chemists, 1981.
Patton, P.The Relationship of Weather to Crops in the Plains Region of Montana.” Montana Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin, no. 206 (1927).
Paullin, Charles O. Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States. Washington, DC: Carnegie Institution, 1932.
Peterson, R. F. Wheat. London: Leonard Hill Books, 1965.
The Plant Disease Bulletin. Vols. 1–6. Washington, DC: U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Bureau of Plant Industry, 1917–1922.
The Plant Disease Reporter. Vols. 7–22. Washington, DC: U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Bureau of Plant Industry, 1923–1939.
Pritchett, John Perry. The Red River Valley, 1811–1849: A Regional Study. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1942.
Quisenberry, Karl S., and Reitz, L. P.. “Turkey Wheat: the Cornerstone of an Empire.” Agricultural History 48, no. 10 (1974): 98114.
Ratner, Sidney, Soltow, James H., and Sylla, Richard. The Evolution of the American Economy. New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1993.
Roberts, I. P., Slingerland, M. V., and Stone, J. L.. “The Hessian Fly: Its Ravages in New York in 1901.” Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin, no. 194 (1901): 239–60.
Roelfs, Alan P.Effects of Barberry Eradication on Stem Rust in the United States.” Plant Disease 66, no. 2 (1982): 177–81.
Roelfs, Alan P.. “Estimated Losses Caused by Rust in Small Grain Cereals in the United States, 1918–76.” U.S. Dept. of Agriculture Miscellaneous Publication, no. 1363 (1978).
Salmon, S. C.Climate and Small Grain.” Yearbook of Agriculture, 1941, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, 334–35. Washington, DC: GPO, 1942.
Salmon, S. C.. “Developing Better Varieties of Wheat for Kansas.” In Wheat in Kansas, 210–17. Topeka: Kansas State Board of Agriculture, 1920.
Salmon, S. C., Mathews, O. R., and Luekel, R. W.. “A Half Century of Wheat Improvement in the United States.” In Advances in Agronomy, edited by Norman, A. G., 1145. Vol. 5. New York: Academic Press, 1953.
Schafer, E. G., Gaines, E. F., and Barbee, O. E.. “Wheat Varieties in Washington.” Washington Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin, no. 207 (1926).
Schmidt, Hubert G. Agriculture in New Jersey: A Three-Hundred-Year History. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1973.
Sechrist, Robert P. Basic Geographic and Historic Data for Interfacing ICPSR Data Sets, 16201983 [United States] [Computer file]. ICPSR version. Baton Rouge, LA: Robert P. Sechrist, Louisiana State University [producer], 1984. Ann Arbor, MI: Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research [distributor], 2000.
Socolofsky, Homer E., and Huber Self. Historical Atlas of Kansas. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1972.
Statistics of Grain Crops, 1921. Wheat.” In Yearbook 1921, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, 530–31. Washington, DC: GPO, 1922.
Stanelle, Jim. “Certified: This Seed Will Inspire Trust and Confidence.” Seed World. (June 1999) p. 18.
Stucky, Harley J. A Century of Russian Mennonite History in America. North Newton, KS: Mennonite Press, 1973.
Talley, Steven. “Hessian fly genomics research will benefit wheat farmers, others.” Purdue News. (March 2001). (12 December 2001).
Todd, Sereno Edwards. The American Wheat Culturist: A Practical Treatise on the Culture of Wheat, Embracing a Brief History and Botanical Description of Wheat, With Full Practical Details for Selecting Seed, Producing New Varieties, and Cultivating on Different Kinds of Soil. New York: Taintor Brothers, 1868.
U.S. Bureau of the Census. Historical Statistics of the United States on CD-ROM: Colonial Times to 1970. Bicentennial edition, electronic edition. Edited by Carter, Susan B., Scott Sigmund Gartner, Haines, Michael R., et al. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
U.S. Bureau of the Census. Statistical Atlas of the United States. Washington, DC: GPO, 1925.
U.S. Bureau of the Census. Thirteenth Census of the United States Taken in the Year 1910. Vols. 6–7. Agriculture: 1909 and 1910, Reports by States, With Statistics for Counties. Washington, DC: GPO, 1913.
U.S. Census Office. Agriculture of the United States in 1860: Compiled From the Original Returns of the Eighth Census. Washington, DC: GPO, 1864.
U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. Report of the Commissioner of Agriculture for the Year 1866. Washington, DC: GPO, 1867.
U.S. Patent Office. Annual Report of the Commissioner of Patents. Agriculture. Vols. 1847 –1855. Washington, DC: GPO, 18481856.
Van Valen, L.A New Evolutionary Law.” Evolutionary Theory. 1 (1973): 130.
Walton, Gary M., and Rockoff, Hugh. History of the American Economy. Orlando, FL: Dryden Press, 1998.
Ward, Tony. “The Origins of the Canadian Wheat Boom, 1880–1910.” Canadian Journal of Economics 27, no. 4 (1994): 864–83.
Weather Extremes - Hays, KS.” [Online], Agricultural Research Center-Hays home page, 9 February 2001. <> (21 February 2001).
Webster, F. M.The Hessian Fly.” Ohio Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin, no. 107 (1899): 257–88.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

The Journal of Economic History
  • ISSN: 0022-0507
  • EISSN: 1471-6372
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-economic-history
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed