The Art and Science of Agriculture

The Art and Science of Agriculture

Agriculture is the art and science of cultivating the soil, growing crops and raising livestock.


3 - 12+


Geography, Human Geography, Physical Geography, Social Studies, World History

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Agriculture means growing food and raising animals. Most of the world's food and fabrics come from agriculture. Corn and cows are both agricultural products. So are cotton, wool and leather.

Start of Agriculture

Many thousands of years ago, people spent most of their lives searching for food. They hunted for wild animals and picked up wild plants. That changed about 11,000 years ago. People learned how to grow grains and roots. They also began raising wild animals.

The first crop was probably rice or corn. Chinese farmers began growing rice about 9,500 years ago. The first tame animal was probably the dog. People used dogs for hunting. Sheep and goats were probably next, and then cows and pigs. Most of these animals used to be hunted for their skin and meat. With agriculture, many of them were raised for their milk. Later, people started using animals such as oxen to work in the field and carry heavy loads.

Agriculture let people make extra food. Farmers traded the extra food for goods. They also kept the extra food and stored it. That way they wouldn't go hungry later.

Because of agriculture, people stopped moving from place to place. They settled down and built villages. They needed to live near their fields. People started trading goods with other villages. Cities grew bigger and civilizations took shape.

Some of the earliest civilizations began near the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Mesopotamia. That is a wide area in the Middle East. Civilizations also formed along the Nile River in Egypt.

Improved Technology

Fire was one of the earliest tools for agriculture. Native Americans used fire to burn down fields. After that, plants would grow more quickly.

Farmers grew crops on small plots of land. They used axes to clear away trees. Over time, they invented better farming tools. They also began making clay pots for carrying and cooking food.

About 7,500 years ago, farmers in Mesopotamia used irrigation. That means they used channels and tunnels to carry water from streams to their fields. Irrigation let them farm in dry areas.

In time, farmers used better and better plants. About 8,000 years ago, farmers in South Asia and Egypt found a new kind of wheat. People used it to make bread.

Around 500 to 600 years ago, explorers sailed to Asia, Africa and the Americas. They brought plants and farm products to Europe. From Asia, they carried home coffee and tea. From the Americas, they took plants such as potatoes, tomatoes, corn, beans and peanuts.


For thousands of years, farmers sowed seeds by hand. They used simple tools to put seeds in the ground. This changed when the seed drill was created. It was invented by a man named Jethro Tull in England. The drill made holes in the ground to plant seeds. It made planting much faster.

Other machines have helped farmers do their work. Many were invented in the United States. The cotton gin was invented by Eli Whitney in 1794. It separated cotton fluff from the seeds. In 1837, John Deere invented a steel plow. It helped farmers work the tough prairie soil.

Agricultural Science

In the early 1900s, U.S. farmers grew enough food to feed a family of five. An average farm today can feed a family and about 100 more people.

The reason is technology. By the late 1950s, farmers used tractors to plow fields. To plow means to turn over the earth. That way, seeds can be planted. It also makes nutrients in the soil come up.

By 1960, most farms in the U.S. had electricity. It lit up farm buildings. Electricity also powered water pumps and milking machines.

Chemicals have also helped agriculture. Today, most farmers use chemicals to get rid of bugs and animals that eat plants. Most farmers also use chemical fertilizers. These fertilizers make the earth grow more crops. But pesticides and fertilizers can hurt the environment. They don't just kill harmful pests. They often destroy other animals too.

Farming in Water

Not all agriculture happens on land. In aquaculture, fish are raised in ponds. China, India and Egypt have used it for thousands of years. There's a problem, though. The planet is getting hotter every year. Scientists call this climate change. The heat is causing many fish habitats to shrink.

Genetic Modification (GMOs)

Science has changed agriculture in many ways. One huge discovery was genetics. Genes are the basic building blocks of life. They tell your body how to grow and work. They are passed from parents to children.

Plants also have genes. In the 1970s, scientists discovered how to change plant genes. They were also able to add new ones. They could make a crop stronger or make it grow faster.

Foods that have been changed are called genetically modified organisms. They are also called GMOs or GM foods. They allow farmers to grow more crops with less work and less land. Vegetables and fruits last longer. But many people think GMOs are not healthy.

Most of the world's farmers live in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Many farm just like their ancestors did. They do not use GMOs. These people are subsistence farmers. They use most of the food they make for themselves and their families. Commercial farmers grow crops only to sell.

Methods of Cultivation

Different parts of the world have different ways of farming. Along the coast of West Africa, farmers are usually women. They plant corn soon after the first rains. Between the rows of corn, the farmers plant other crops. The growing plants get water from the rain. The farmers use hoes to get rid of weeds. At harvest time, the farmers and their families pick the corn. They grind the dried corn to make porridge.

Agriculture in the Corn Belt is very different. The Corn Belt is in the Midwest of the United States. Most of the nation's corn is grown there. American farms are very large. Farmers use tractors to sow seed. The machine makes holes in the soil. It drops in kernels of genetically modified corn. The farmers use chemicals to kill weeds and pests.

Most of this corn isn't for people to eat. It is used to feed cows and to make other products, such as corn syrup. It's used as a sweetener.


People raise billions of animals around the world. In Nigeria, the Fulani people move with their cows. They go from one grazing area to another. The Fulani use cows for milk. They rarely kill their animals for meat. But in the U.S., cows are raised for their meat. They are bred to grow quickly and to get large.

Fight Against Hunger

Agriculture is facing some major problems. There are more and more people in the world. All of them need to be fed. Some countries are able to grow more food. Others grow less. In places with less food, hunger is a serious problem.

Countries with extra food sell it to other areas. This is not enough, though. Poor countries do not have the money to buy all the food they need. They also want to be able to feed themselves.

The world's land and water must be protected, too. Agriculture does not have to hurt the environment with chemicals. People should protect the land, water and air. They should share knowledge about healthy agriculture. Then, the whole world can get the food it needs.

Fast Fact

The size of an average farm in the United States in 2007 was 449 acres, or about the size of 449 football fields.

Fast Fact

Big Nine
Half of the total value of agricultural products in the U.S. comes from nine states.

  • California
  • Texas
  • Iowa
  • Nebraska
  • Kansas
  • Illinois
  • Minnesota
  • North Carolina
  • Wisconsin

Source: 2007 Census of Agriculture

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Melissa McDaniel
Santani Teng
Erin Sprout
Hilary Costa
Hilary Hall
Jeff Hunt
Diane Boudreau
Tara Ramroop
Kim Rutledge
Mary Crooks, National Geographic Society
Tim Gunther
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West
Educator Reviewer
Nancy Wynne
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

January 3, 2024

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