MINNESOTA: A STATE GUIDE
Agriculture and Farm Life
The first permanent settlers to till the soil came from the Selkirk colony, in the Red River valley of Canada, who arrived at Fort Snelling as early as 1821. Although many of the immigrants from the East were farmers, it was not until about 1850 that agriculture had become the principal industry.
By 1854, the 32,000 inhabitants had bought 314,715 acres of public lands. Two years later the population, now tripled, had purchased more than 2,000,000 acres. Today the 203,000 farms embrace 32,817,911 acres and include most of the land economically adapted to agriculture--about two-thirds of the State's area. Fifty-one percent of the population of Minnesota is still rural.
In the 1850's, when agriculture was undertaken in earnest, farmers ignored the rich prairies and chose land in the wooded valleys and hills along the Mississippi, St. Croix, and Minnesota Rivers. Cutting the trees and grubbing out stumps might be a long and costly business, but they were wary of land where trees did not grow, where water was obtainable only by digging deep wells, and where cyclones and prairie fires were a periodic menace. It was not until after immigrants had followed the railroads across the State, and had proved the richness of this prairie country, that they realized their mistake.
The trend of Minnesota agriculture has been from grazing to cash crops, then to feed crops. The first stage involved only the few horses, cattle, and swine of the early settlers, and the pasturage of these animals on the wooded hills.
Wheat was shown to be an excellent crop for Minnesota soil and climate when it was raised in 1820 by the enlisted men of Fort St. Anthony (Fort Snelling). Individual farmers in the years following were soon planting most of their acreage in wheat, and when railroads spread across the State in the 1860's and 1870's, linking the southern and western prairies with a world-wide market, grain raising was almost the sole occupation of the farmers. Immigrants from Europe and settlers from the East then swarmed to the rich prairie land. For them, too, wheat was the New World's most satisfactory crop. The virgin land produced abundantly at little cost, and the grain could be converted into money the same year it was grown.
Railroads promoted the idea of large-scale wheat farming and gave rise to the bonanza farms of the Red River valley. These farms averaged 2,000 acres--several were many times as large--and by virtue of the inventions and improvements in farm machinery of 1860-70, the expense of operation was considerably lessened.
Wheat came to be measured in millions of bushels. Terminal elevators appeared at every railroad station, and the great mills of Minneapolis arose to challenge all competition. Minnesota led the Nation in flour production and was popularly known as the "bread basket" of the country.
Then economic conditions changed, farming methods improved, and recent years witnessed a shift in the agricultural scene. From 1928 to 1935 Minnesota planted yearly an average of 1,494,800 acres to wheat, of which the annual yield was 18,619,500 bushels.
Corn acreage pushed into first place at the turn of the century. While wheat from the newly broken prairies to the west and northwest was being dumped on the market, its prices sagging, the early-maturing varieties of corn were being developed and gradually introduced into the State. An influx of Iowa farmers with experience in corn raising started the swing away from cash to feed crops. Minnesota, which in 1890 produced relatively little corn, now harvests about 150,000,000 bushels each fall. Most of this crop is grown in southern Minnesota and is fed to hogs, which account for 25.2 percent of the State's farm revenue.
Flax thrived on the new prairie land. In some counties, at a time when the price of flaxseed was high, the total acreage exceeded that of wheat. About 700,000 acres are now planted annually; the average yearly production is four to six million bushels.
Oats, barley, and rye were introduced and are still grown extensively as both cash and feed crops. Minnesota leads the country in the production of barley and is second in oats and rye. The volume of oats, 150,000,000 bushels annually, is the greatest of the small grain crops. Oats are raised in all parts of the State.
Livestock raising, which before the corn era had been confined to a few animals kept on the farm for milk production or meat, has now increased to major proportions. Along with corn, much of the grain formerly raised as a cash crop is fed to livestock and sold as pork, beef, mutton, wool, poultry, and eggs. The livestock "prosperity quintuplets"--the cow, sow, hen, sheep, and steer--yield three-fourths of the State's farm income.
Diversified agriculture in Minnesota appealed to railroad promoters like James J. Hill. Foreseeing the profit returns from a heavy freight traffic over his Great Northern line, Hill campaigned strenuously to increase the farm population within his domains and to develop large-volume production there. He delivered countless speeches in the Northwest, exhorting the homesteaders to scientific farming. His railroad drew demonstration trains from settlement to settlement and conducted demonstration farms. In 1883 Hill began a spectacular ballyhoo for purebred livestock by importing costly bulls and presenting them to Minnesota farmers for free service to their herds.
Minnesota leads all the States in the production of butter. Dairying is the most important branch of its livestock industry, and contributes 27.6 percent of the total farm income. Demand for dairy products in eastern markets, the speeding up of transportation, and the improvement of refrigeration facilities aided in the rapid rise of this industry. Minnesota sweet cream is now marketed in the East; its butter and cheese are carried across the ocean. Co-operative creameries were introduced to Minnesota farmers by Professor Theophilus L. Haecker, who came to the State university dairy school in 1891. They have increased marketing facilities and the farm income.
Dairy cows are kept on the majority of farms. The most intensive dairying regions are in the southeastern part of the State, in the vicinity of the Twin Cities, and near Duluth. Excellent natural grasses, the ease with which forage crops can be grown, and the abundant supply of pure water are natural advantages for the industry which has now stamped Minnesota as "The Butter State."
In 1890 less than 15,000,000 pounds of butter were produced; the current annual production is 280,000,000 pounds. In addition, more than 9,000,000 pounds of cheese are marketed every year. This growth has taken place in previously established dairy regions, there having been almost no increase in the number of creameries since 1910.
Alfalfa is grown extensively for forage and soil enrichment. Potatoes are the most important cultivated crop in the Red River valley, in northwestern Minnesota, and most of it is sold outside the State. Apple growing on a commercial scale is almost entirely confined to the Lake Minnetonka region, west of Minneapolis, and to the valley lands of southeastern Minnesota. Sugar beets are a popular crop in the central part of the State.
The State is moving toward a stabilized agriculture. Since 1929 the relative acreage of wheat and corn has changed little. The earlier rapid increase in dairy cattle, swine, and egg production has slackened. But even if crop stabilization is becoming a reality, many problems remain to be solved before Minnesota can hope to achieve its fullest agricultural development. The most critical of these are soil erosion, untillable or uneconomic lands (see NATURAL SETTING), and tenant-operated farms. The last is perhaps less often recognized than others, but is nevertheless of great significance.
In Minnesota, renters make up one-third of the farm operators; in the best farming districts they often outnumber the owners. Tenant farming began soon after the first agricultural operations, when owners found themselves unable or unwilling to cultivate their homestead lands. As the cities grew, many professional and business men bought land for investment, renting it while they waited for a rise in price. In recent years the already large number of non-resident owners has been augmented by mortgage foreclosures Many farms have been taken over by insurance and trust companies and by private investors.
Soil erosion is particularly severe in the hilly, stream-cut farmlands of the southeastern part of the State. Soil conservation experts here have illustrated effective methods of saving the land from gullying, and returning many acres to production.
Reforestation is reclaiming thousands of acres of cut-over land in the northern half of the State. Farm families, unable to make a living on the submarginal land, are being relocated on more productive farms.
Farm life in Minnesota has retained little of its pioneer flavor. The "farm-to-market" road building program of the Works Progress Administration began in 1935, together with other transportation improvements. It has made trips to the trading center for both meetings and shopping a common event. Newspapers, the radio, and easy transportation have done away with the earlier isolation, and the farmer of today may be as closely in touch with the world's affairs as the city man.
But despite modern advances, the era of kerosene lamps, outdoor privies, and well-house refrigeration has not wholly passed. Relatively few farm homes are modernized and equipped with labor-saving devices. Farmers of the more prosperous agricultural areas, the south-central and western parts of the State, may have many luxuries, but even the simplest comforts are too often lacking in the unproductive, cut-over regions of the northeast.
The Minnesota farmer can no longer be regarded as an isolated pioneer waging a single-handed battle with the soil. That he has learned to work together with his neighbors is shown by the leadership of Minnesota in agricultural co-operation. The Farmer-Labor Party, too, latest successor to early agrarian movements, includes a large group of the rural population. Producers' and consumers' co-operatives bring higher prices for produce and cut the cost of retail merchandise. Minnesota has more than 1,800 farmers' marketing and purchasing associations with approximately 400,000 members. Creameries, grain elevators, and livestock- and produce-shipping associations are counted among the producer organizations.
Since Federal funds were made available by the organization in 1934 of the Rural Electrification Administration, 57 co-operative associations have been formed to bring light and power to Minnesota farms. Previously there were but six co-operatives in the field, the first of which was organized in 1914.
County agricultural agents offer and interpret to farmers the services of such agencies as the Federal, State, and University departments of agriculture, and other State departments such as the grain inspection division of the railroad and warehouse commission, the livestock board, and the State agricultural society. All of these give protection against illegal trade practices, supply technical information on farm problems, and encourage improvements in agricultural methods.
By dispensing technical information, the department of agriculture of the State university has been of incalculable value to Minnesota farmers. The department is held amply worth its cost by one achievement alone, the perfection of an early variety of corn, Minnesota No. 13, which has multiplied the number of corn-producing farms in the State.