CUTTING BY HAND TO CUTTING BY COMBINE: HISTORY OF HARVEST AG MECHANIZATION

This week on Corn Corps, we’re celebrating ag history!  Come back everyday to learn more about where we’ve been and where we’re headed! 

“It’s harvest time in this little town, time to bring it on in, pay the loans down.”  Luke Bryan’s new song “Harvest Time” explains this time of year perfectly.  However, not so long ago, harvest was done completely different around here.  Instead of the combines, tractors, grain carts and the semi-trucks we use today, farmers harvested with much simpler tools.  Farming has seen numerous changes over the years, but none of them have been as impactful as the mechanization of harvest equipment.

Since Egyptian times, farmers have been harvesting their crops with sickles or scythes.  This process was extremely labor intensive and therefore made large farms nearly impossible.  Even in the early days of the United States, farmers had to have lots of help to plant, grow and harvest their crops.  The invention of the threshing machine by a Scottish man named Andrew Meikle in the 1780s, improved harvesting, although numerous people and horses were still required.  His machine mechanically separated the grain from the stalk of wheat and oats, the major crop of the time.

This machine was so revolutionary; our founding fathers ordered one of Meikle’s machines to use on their own farms.  Thomas Jefferson used three on his farm making one stationary, ran by steam and two that could move and be powered by his horses. George Washington wrote Jefferson stating the following about the machines,

“If you can bring a moveable threshing machine, constructed upon simple principles to perfection, it will be among the most valuable institutions in this Country; for nothing is more wanting, and to be wished for on our farms.”

It is easy to see that making farming more feasible was a key principle throughout the farming community.  Over the years modifications of the machine were made so it could be more maneuverable and be able to reap, thresh and winnow the crop all in one machine.

Luckily for today’s farmer, mechanical advancement of harvest equipment continued past the horse drawn machines.  In 1923, the Baldwin brothers of Kansas invented the first self-propelled harvester in the MidWest.  This machine, unlike the threshing machines, could be run with one person and no horses.  This harvester, called the combine, incorporated numerous advancements including augers to move the seed from the machine to storage equipment.  This galvanized metal combine, known as the Gleaner combine, changed harvesting forever.  The brothers sold their company to Allis-Chalmers in 1955, which is now part of the AGCO Corporation.

On our farm, we still have our old Gleaner combine, but she has been retired for the most part.  In her place is now an Illinois designed green machine, a John Deere 9510.  Today on our farm, instead of having dozens of people reaping by hand, we have one person in the combine, and another driving the semi-truck to the elevator to deliver the grain or someone driving the tractor and grain cart.  Harvest equipment sure has changed over the years, making harvest a little less time-consuming and little more enjoyable for everyone.

Miranda Morgan
University of Illinois student

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