In the second half of the nineteenth century, China experienced agricultural and ecological crises of increasing frequency and severity. This article shows how these crises fostered discussion among Chinese elites about the value of steam-powered machines for agricultural development. In the 1860s the expansion of wasteland and the rising price of grain in provinces destroyed by the Taiping Rebellion convinced some to voice support for introducing labor-saving machinery into rural areas. In the 1870s the drought that catalyzed the North China Famine persuaded others of the value of well-drilling machines to solve the problem of water scarcity. The growth of Chinese-language periodicals and interactions between Chinese and foreigners in China and other countries facilitated the acquisition of knowledge about foreign farming technologies and stimulated debate over their value to Chinese agriculture. Although proposals for rural mechanization were never widely implemented in this era, they are significant insofar as they demonstrate the ways these crises engendered new considerations of how to exploit the country’s land and water resources. This finding suggests that historians need to take account of such crises to understand the roots of industrialization in China.