Farm Systems Energy Transitions on the Great Plains: Fossil Fuels, Fertilizers, and the Energy Return on Investment of Industrial Agriculture

Andrew Watson, University of Saskatchewan

Between the late nineteenth and late twentieth centuries, agriculture on the Great Plains of the United States underwent a transition from an organic energy regime to a mineral energy regime. This process had profound consequences for farmers, their land, and the scale of agricultural output. During the late nineteenth century, farmers pursued traditional agriculture and invested very little energy from outside the agroecosystem. Instead, they used a high proportion of the produce from their farms to feed and care for livestock, which in turn performed the majority of the work and provided a majority of the fertilizer. During the middle decades of the twentieth century, farmers initiated an energy transition on the Great Plains by mechanizing farm work and replacing manure with synthetic fertilizers. By the end of the twentieth century, that transition was complete, and mineral energy structured industrial agriculture. Farmers succeeded in dramatically increasing the cropland productivity of the land, but at the cost of incredible fossil fuel investments. Using a social metabolism methodology to disaggregate the various types of energy that farmers invested into their farm systems, and county-level agricultural census data to perform a spatial analysis of the energy transition, this paper will consider the relative importance of fossil fuels used in mechanization and embodied in synthetic fertilizer in the energy transition to industrial agriculture. Other historians of agriculture have made strong arguments about the importance of fossil-fueled mechanization in modern agriculture. This paper demonstrates that the fossil fuel energy embodied in synthetic fertilizers had a much greater impact on the massive increase in cropland productivity during the second half of the twentieth century.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 267. Agriculture and Energy in Early-Modern and Modern Europe / North America. The Contribution of GIS