The first two decades of the 20th century were bountiful for American agriculture; the crescendo was reached during World War I, first through exports to Europe, then to feed the American war effort. Measures such as the Homestead Act (1862), offering free land to settlers in the West, had promoted the rapid increase in the cultivated land area. Meanwhile improvements in technology, notably mechanization, fertilizer usage and irrigation, revolutionized yields. The development of the rail network and refrigeration opened up new markets allowing prairies wheat and beef and Californian fruit to supply world markets. However, the long boom concealed structural problems. The post-Emancipation South had seen plantation subdivision between sharecroppers in barely viable units. In the West, farmers borrowed to buy additional land and invest in equipment: often the new land was at the margins of cultivability. The 1920s would see the onset of a long agricultural depression, graphically exemplified by the Midwestern Dustbowl.
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