The Development of Mechanised Farming

The Development of Mechanised Farming

One of a series of articles by Mike Thorne, with particular reference to the role of Harry Ferguson

The development of mechanised farming goes back to mankind’s earliest days, for it started when he first used a stick to scratch the soil instead of his own two hands.  He domesticated animals and crops.  Our present day cereals and livestock are man’s creation and in fact are entirely dependent upon man for survival.  In turn, man depends on these creations for his own subsistence.

This process has gone on throughout the ages in an attempt to remove the threat of hunger and famine – this threat is still the driving force behind our efforts to raise the world’s standards of food production (and distribution).  We all live on a knife- edge there is no such thing as a surplus of food in the world.

Each step upward in civilisation has meant an increased need for food and today there is still a very real prediction of hunger in much of the world.

As we have become much more civilised with the better hygiene and medicine.  This need for more food, has increased more rapidly resulting in the enormous advances in the past century, particularly in new species and varieties of crops, livestock breeding, the introduction of artificial (so called) fertilisers and chemical sprays, pesticides of all kinds and the invention of a host of different farm machines.

It is only during the past 40 years that the horse has lost its pride of place as the power unit on our farms – using oats as its main source of fuel.

The change however, was a long and gradual one commencing in the early days of the industrial revolution with its driving force of the great invention that transformed the world-steam power (since which, science has learned more from the steam engine than the steam engine has learned from science).

The larger and leading farmers were quick to adopt steam power for threshing and ploughing and some farsighted ones even suggested “that it might displace the horse in future”.  However, the death knell of steam power was quickly sounded at about the time of World War I when the motor (I.C.) engine tractor was introduced into this country in comparatively large numbers.

The advantages of these machines over steam engines (or fire engines as they were called which were powerful but heavy and cumbersome) were quickly realised.

The period after the war still saw many horses at work and agriculture entered into the crippling depression of the early Thirties.  It also put many manufacturers of farm machinery out of business, some good machines and some brilliant ideas went on the scrap heap, but so did much rubbish.

It is a strange thing, but farmers and churchmen were predominant in looking for ways and means.  Jethro Tull was an example, the father of the seed drill and the system of row crop cultivation.  The Rev. Patrick Bell gave us the reaper.  Appleby the binder knotter and McCommick – self binder.  Henry Ford a poor self- educated man and many others are just a few examples.

Many firms were able to keep going in those sad years and again many good ideas never saw the light of day, very often for economic reasons.

Two outstanding developments of the modern tractor were achieved. However the first was in 1932 when a pneumatically tyred tractor was introduced.

This met with considerable opposition to start with, but demonstrated its advantages to such effect that within a few years it became the chief means of gaining traction on the land.

The second was the integral mounting of the implements to the rear of the tractor and controlling lift, drop and depth by hydraulic means.

The Ferguson System 

Most great men, particularly it seems, engineers, started from humble origins, most were self- educated.

Newcomen was a Blacksmith – James Watt – Karl Benz – Gotthiel Daimler and others.

The man who invented the Ferguson System  – was Harry Ferguson, inventor of the Ferguson Tractor, the Ferguson farming implements and pioneer of the Ferguson System, was born on October 4th 1884 on a County Down farm in Northern Ireland.

As a boy his main interest was machinery and at the early age of sixteen he made his first venture into the field of practical mechanics.  In 1900 he set up a small works in Belfast for the sale and servicing of the then novel motor cars and motor cycles.  He soon began to race his own motor cycles and later motor cars, winning several hill climbs and similar sporting competitions.

It was inevitable at that time for Mr Ferguson to turn from automobiles to aeroplanes.  He designed and built a small monoplane and flew it for the first time on December 31st 1909.  This was the first heavier-than-air machine to be flown in Ireland and Mr Ferguson became the first Briton to build and fly his own machine.  In 1911,

Mr Ferguson returned to the automobile industry and organised a distributing agency in Belfast.

On the outbreak of war in 1914, Harry Ferguson was asked by Ireland’s Department of Agriculture to supervise the operation and maintenance of all tractors and implements throughout the country to ensure their maximum efficiency in the difficult days that lay ahead.  This was the turning point in his life.

He could see that the existing models of farm production throughout Ireland, and indeed the whole world depended chiefly on animal power, requiring the use of large acreage’s simply to feed the draught animals.  He could see that the animal was a definite impediment on the road of human progress.

He realised very soon that the efficient production of food is the foundation of a strong and secure nation and that a prosperous agriculture is the basic ingredient of a sound national economy.  With the opinion firmly established in his mind, he reached the conclusion that only efficient mechanisation could place the agriculture of the world on the level it must reach if hunger – and the misery it breeds- were to be abolished.  (Note:  At that time the world population was increasing at 20 million a year, now 1979 at 70 million a year, 2 people every time your heart beats).

Having reached this conclusion, Harry Ferguson set about designing and developing a new and revolutionary type of farming equipment.  The result was that in 1935, after endless experiments and concentrated engineering developments, he perfected what is now known as the Ferguson System, not only unique in itself but outstanding in that it achieved huge commercial success under the personal direction of its inventor.

It gave a new ease of implement operation, automatic depth regulation of soil engaging implements and automatic protection of implements against breakages by hidden obstructions. A new trend in the design of farm tractors and implements had begun.  One by one almost all other tractor manufacturers have adopted the hydraulic lift and the mounted implement principle, though Ferguson System in some of its aspects still remains unique.

Harry Ferguson defined his plan in Detroit, Michigan on December 1st 1947 as follows:-

“My whole economic philosophy and all my efforts are guided by the knowledge that the best way to improve the total economy will be through cutting the cost of production of agricultural products, which control the cost of living”.

There must be implements of an altogether new type which will produce for the first time in history, enough food to feed all the people of the world, and also produce from the land, the source from which all wealth comes – a new wealth to enrich the world”.  Everything we eat comes from the soil, except the fish and salt.

Our plant for prosperity, security and peace can be stated in two simple propositions.

  1. Make the good earth produce more than enough to keep its whole population in comfort and contentment.
  1. And, what is equally vital, produce that “more than enough” at prices which the people of the world can afford to pay.

In October 1949 – when Britain has just devalued the £ sterling in relation to the Dollar, Harry Ferguson conducted a personal campaign in the press and drew the attention of Members of Parliament to the basic fact that modernised agricultural production methods could achieve a cut of 20 per cent in the cost of living resulting in a decreasing spiral of food and all other prices, thus substituting a Price Reducing System for the curse of the age and Price Increasing System.

Echoing words used in an early definition of his plan he added:  “The only obstacle for growing all the food that we need in this country (Britain), is our failure to use millions of acres capable of efficient production, and the continued use of antiquated methods of hand labour and animal power on our farms….”

The actual manufacture of farm machinery is only half the reputable manufacturers battle.  Harry Ferguson pioneered service “on the farm” by which every machine is kept working on the farm as continuously and efficiently as possible.  To this end a complete “School of Farm Mechanisation” was established, situated at Stoneleigh.  It is staffed by fully qualified instructors and offers every facility for teaching the application of farm machinery.  The school trains the company’s own staff and the representatives of its distributors, from all parts of the world, in all aspects of complete farm mechanisation and these persons in turn can pass on these benefits to the farmer, though some farmers and their workers do attend courses from time to time.

These instructional facilities are also available to university and college students, Young Farmer’s Clubs and similar organisations.

This instruction is carried outside too in the form of lectures, short courses, demonstrations, film shows, talks and discussions in conjunction with distributors educational establishments of many types, farmers’ discussion clubs and similar bodies in this country and abroad.  This is considered to be a very important part of the function of Stoneleigh.

The status of agricultural engineering in the economic life of the nation has grown during the past forty years or so from a comparative Cinderella to that of major industry with a similar expansion taking place in many other parts of the world.

No so very long ago, certainly within living memory of many, the village blacksmith was the acknowledged agricultural engineer and his shop the birthplace of many a farm implement.  The blacksmith’s products were generally of the simple kind like spike harrows and supplemented the more involved designs produced by a number of manufacturers of long standing.  As such, the blacksmith’s knowledge of farm equipment was often surprisingly great.

He fell by the wayside along with so many other rural craftsmen during the farming depression.  Today of course, he could never hope to compete with factory built equipment.  Many with experience of blacksmith’s work in the old days are now trained mechanics and carry on a great tradition of service to the farmer.

1978 is a far cry from the days of the blacksmith.  The agricultural engineering industry is as modern as any in Britain.  Its factories cover millions of square feet, and up-to-date methods of mass production are essential to satisfy demand and maintain its products at economic prices.  Harry Ferguson substituted brains for brawn, torque wrench and feeler gauges for hammer and chisel.

Agriculture can claim to be the country’s largest industry.  There are various ways of justifying this statement – it occupies by far the largest proportion of the country’s area (at present), but then land is its principal raw material.  Its output is the largest at some £4,000 million, some fifteen times the pre-ware level.  How many other industries of long establishment can claim a figure such as this?

The industry however, employs comparatively few full time workers at under 200,000 about 2 per cent of the population and this figure is expected to fall still further.  This dwindling labour force is said by some to be a drift from the land in search of more remunerative employment and by others to be a push from the land caused by increasing mechanisation.  Whichever it is, and it is probably a mixture of both, it is inescapable and gives some reliable pointers to future trends in the industry.

Farmers, both large and small must plan and re-organise their activities to maintain or increase their productivity in the face of a diminishing labour force.  This can only be done by utilising wherever possible, mechanical aids designed to this end.  The agricultural machinery manufacturer must therefore be abreast of latest trends and must make full use of the research and design facilities available to him to produce the modern agricultural equipment capable of working under the exacting conditions met within farming the world over.

Power farming imposes strains on machines never encountered during the age of the horse-drawn implement, and unlike other engineering products designed for known and comparatively uniform conditions, they must work under very widely varying conditions with efficiency and reliability.  They must perform under extremes of heat and cold, rough ground and smooth, hilly and level, in mud, in dust or water.  In additional to this it must withstand the treatment meted out to it by brute force and ignorance.

Some notes on the personality and idiosyncrasies of Harry Ferguson:

Harry Ferguson was understandably the driving force and dominant personality behind the organisation which he built up.  He was a man dedicated to his work and this with his characteristic determination made him a perfectionist.  This determination was evident throughout his activities and particularly in designing the tractor and as a result he would never accept the apparently impossible.

He was designing his tractor and machinery for the small farmer, particularly the owner-driver, and therefore cheapness of manufacture was one of his main aims.  Another one was that the driver should be able, after a day’s driving, to carry out other essential routine work on the farm without being unduly tired.  He always had to be able to operate his machinery himself efficiently and it was an advantage, therefore, that physically he was not strong.  This therefore, led to such refinements as an efficient self-starter, brakes, which did not require heavy foot pressure and many more.  He also felt that the farmer’s job was to farm and not be a mechanic and the amount of time spent on mechanics should be a minimum.  This led to many points of ease of maintenance and features such as the use of one spanner for all implement nuts and bolts and his insistence on greasing a nut before screwing it on.

He had idiosyncrasies largely deriving from his fanatical insistence on tidiness.

This tidiness extended beyond himself and his location to those who were with him and he even required his employees to wear single-breasted suits.  The same applied to demonstrations of his machinery and these always had to be rehearsed to such an extent to ensure that the actual demonstrations were assured of success.  Another essential of all his personnel was to carry a notebook in the left- hand pocket and a pencil in the left hand inside pocket of the jacket.  Notes were to occupy no more than one page per day.  This may give you some indication of the personality of Harry Ferguson and the determination, which led to the perfection and success of his system.

L0905 First Published 1979 © /Mike Thorne/KM