A period of important agricultural development began in the early 1700s for Great Britain and the Low Countries (Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands, which lie below sea level). New agricultural inventions dramatically increased food production in Europe and European colonies, particularly the United States and Canada.
One of the most important of these developments was an improved horse-drawn seed drill invented by Jethro Tull in England. Until that time, farmers sowed seeds by hand. Tull’s drill made rows of holes for the seeds. By the end of the 18th century, seed drilling was widely practiced in Europe.
Many machines were developed in the United States. The cotton gin, invented by Eli Whitney in 1794, reduced the time needed to separate cotton fiber from seed. In the 1830s, Cyrus McCormick’s mechanical reaper helped modernize the grain-cutting process. At about the same time, John and Hiram Pitts introduced a horse-powered thresher that shortened the process of separating grain and seed from chaff and straw. John Deere’s steel plow, introduced in 1837, made it possible to work the tough prairie soil with much less horsepower. Along with new machines, there were several important advances in farming methods. By selectively breeding animals (breeding those with desirable traits), farmers increased the size and productivity of their livestock.
Cultures have been breeding animals for centuries—evidence suggests Mongolian nomads were selectively breeding horses in the Bronze Age. Europeans began to practice selective breeding on a large scale beginning in the 18th century. An early example of this is the Leicester sheep, an animal selectively bred in England for its quality meat and long, coarse wool.
Plants could also be selectively bred for certain qualities. In 1866, Gregor Mendel’s studies in heredity were published in Austria. In experiments with pea plants, Mendel learned how traits were passed from one generation to the next. His work paved the way for improving crops through genetics.
New crop rotation methods also evolved during this time. Many of these were adopted over the next century or so throughout Europe. For example, the Norfolk four-field system, developed in England, proved quite successful. It involved the yearly rotation of several crops, including wheat, turnips, barley, clover, and ryegrass. This added nutrients to the soil, enabling farmers to grow enough to sell some of their harvest without having to leave any land unplanted.
Most of the world was not affected by these developments, however. Farmers in Asia, Australia, Africa, and South America continued to use old ways of agriculture.