Stories

Long Ago, Horses Were Tractors and Oats Were Gas

It’s about American farming in the early 20th century. Read on, it’ll make sense soon.

BY SAM WORLEY · JAN 13, 2023

Let’s say you are an oat. Or better yet, a handful of oats. It’s
 the 1920s, and things are going well in the country where you grew
 up: the United States. World War I is in the rearview mirror, the
 Great Depression is somewhere up ahead. The decade is roaring.

Your life is short--that’s the drawback--but it’s meaningful. You’ve grown up from seed. You’ve been scythed, dried, threshed, and winnowed, and now destiny approaches ... You’re about to be swallowed by a horse. One part of you will be ejected in a familiar form out the other end of the animal. Another will be altered into something more spectacular than a pile of horse sh*t. You’ll become energy, the stuff the horse uses all day working in the field. What a calling!

You’ve been a cornerstone of American agriculture for centuries. You helped build the country. When the United States was just a scattered bunch of colonies, you were one of the big three feed crops, along with corn and wheat, powering horses that plowed the fields. One newspaper article even called you the “gasoline of the 19th century.” Thank you for your service.

But there are dark clouds on the horizon. You’re about to be ... put out to pasture.

Earlier this century, 25 million horses and mules roamed American fields, and they were fueled by you, the little oat. In 1917, though, things took a turn: Henry Ford introduced a machine called the Fordson. It’s like the Model T but for tractors. The Fordson will eventually be described as the “iPad of tractors” or “the definitive, consumer-friendly genre-busting technology that immediately dominated a formerly desolate market.” (It being the 1920s, you obviously have no idea what an iPad is, and that’s OK. Let’s move on.)

The next year, in 1918, the company John Deere acquired Iowa’s Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company, marking another big step forward for the tractor. This moment in your life will later be understood as an uneasy one, the real beginning of your decline.

“The tractor does not have to be fed or watered at all at the end of the day’s work, nor does it require any care or expense until it starts on the next day’s work.”

Farmers are talking it over too, in places like the letters section of the Nebraska Farmer. One J.H. Ratliff of Hitchcock County extols the value of the mechanical tractor, saying, “The tractor does not have to be fed or watered at all at the end of the day’s work, nor does it require any care or expense until it starts on the next day’s work.”

Another correspondent, Ira Nichols of Buffalo County, sees it differently: “I say stick to the horse. ... Horses get their strength and power from feed raised on the farm, while the tractor’s power is from a fluid called ‘gasoline,’ the price of which is 25 cents a gallon and is still rising. Farmers are losing too much money on machinery.” At least Ira is on your side!

Still, you can guess which viewpoint will win out: Technology is about to render you and your equine pals obsolete. You’ll hang on for a few more decades, but in the 1950s you’ll really start disappearing as more and more American farmers embrace the tractor.

In fact, the whole American system of agriculture will shift away from oat-fueled horses. Oat crops will make way for a massive uptake of corn and soy, the raw ingredients of an emerging industrial monoculture. Corn will become corn syrup and soy will feed livestock in meat and dairy industries. It will all coincide with the restructuring of American life around the combustion engine--especially the car.

“I say stick to the horse. ... Farmers are losing too much money on machinery.”

The upheaval will lead to weird chains of cause and effect. As horses disappear, barnyards will become heavily populated by other farm animals--chickens, pigs, cows--who will be fed soy and corn. And rather than controlling weeds and pests by alternating, say, oats with other crops, farmers will rely on chemicals. It’s sad when you think about it: Horses contribute a bit to greenhouse gas emissions, but that’s vastly outweighed by what comes from engines powering all these tractors.

The oat, though. The oat represents honest, small-scale agriculture and care for the land. You represent (and I don’t need to tell you this) good eating, too. Humans and horses agree.

Soon you’ll be set for a comeback, little oat--one with a bit of poetic justice. While your decline was triggered by gas-spewing vehicles and industrial agriculture, now you’ll get to point the way toward a rosier, healthier future for both human and planet.

You’ll become an environmental asset. You’ll be pulverized into products like oat drink, and you will help the world break its dependency on dairy. Farmers will embrace regenerative systems, and your seeds--well, the seeds of your descendants--will be planted as rotational crops. They’ll enrich the soil while keeping away weeds and bugs, just as they did in the old days.

The oat, though. The oat represents honest, small-scale agriculture and care for the land.

In fact, in the 21st century, a minor movement will unfold among farmers to return to the days of yore. In France, vintners will find that animals compact the soil less than tractors do and work better on steep or narrow terrain. Some will find horses cheaper to purchase and maintain than tractors. (Those farmers will get the added bonus of hanging out with horses all day.) And there will even be college programs on draft-horse handling.

It’ll be a redemption arc for oats. You’ll be a hero again! Just wait.

More stories