in Wisconsin History
Farming and Rural Life
Although Native Americans have farmed in Wisconsin since the Woodland Period (about 3,000 years ago), the European settlers who arrived in the 19th century were not at first drawn to farming. Instead the lure of underground mineral wealth attracted the first few thousand settlers to the lead region of southwest Wisconsin in the 1820s.
Everything began to change in the 1830s when government surveyors began laying out townships and making detailed examinations of the Wisconsin landscape. Armed with copies of the surveyors' notes, land seekers and speculators began to purchase land from government land offices, paving the way for Wisconsin's agricultural future.
Farming held the widest and most lasting appeal for the immigrants who began coming in increasing numbers in the 1830s. Upon arriving, immigrants were usually anxious to find a good farm site and to raise a crop before winter to feed their families and to sell for additional supplies. Nearly 5,000 farms a year were carved out of the Wisconsin landscape in the 1840s.
Wheat was the earliest and most important cash crop in Wisconsin because it required a small initial capital investment and was fairly easy to grow. From 1840 to 1880, one-sixth of the wheat grown in the United States came from Wisconsin. Despite its early success and appeal to new homesteaders, however, wheat began to fall from favor in the late 1850s as farmers faced stiff competition from wheat farmers in Iowa and Minnesota. The following decade, disaster struck Wisconsin wheat farmers when a disease called wheat rust and tiny insects known as chinch bugs destroyed crops. To remain profitable, farmers had to find new, different, and more manageable crops.
For some, the wheat disaster was a blessing in disguise. Since the 1850s, agricultural reformers had urged farmers to diversify their plantings and to restore depleted soil through crop rotation and fertilization. The Civil War stimulated Wisconsin's wheat production for a time but it also encouraged experimentation and specialization with other farm products. Some of these experiments were little more than fleeting endeavors, like the Sauk County hops craze of the 1860s. Others proved more lasting.
Farmers in Waushara County, for example, pioneered the state's cranberry industry in the bogs just north of Berlin, Wisconsin. Production soon expanded into the bogs of the central counties. Areas of southern Wisconsin also began specializing. Farmers in Rock, Jefferson, and Dane counties in particular found success with tobacco. Many other farmers turned to feed crops like corn, oats, and hay to feed the thousands of cows producing milk, cheese, and butter for Wisconsin's growing dairy industry. In 1890, Wisconsin ranked first, second, and third nationally in the production of rye, barley, and oats.
Commercial fruit and vegetable cultivation, particularly of peas, began to dominate agricultural production in certain counties in the late nineteenth century. Nearly 30 percent of the state's potatoes, a basic food source for many farmers, came from Portage, Waushara, and Waupaca counties throughout the early twentieth century. Green peas, sweet corn, cucumbers, snap beans, lima beans, and beets all became important commercial crops in the 1880s and Wisconsin soon led the nation in the production of vegetables for processing. And after much trial and error, apples, cherries, and strawberries emerged as viable commercial crops in a few regions of the state.
As many farmers prospered in southern Wisconsin, others, particularly newer immigrants, tried to stake claims in the northern "cutover" counties left decimated by logging in the early twentieth century. Despite strong promotional efforts and state aid to help settlers remove stumps, the region did not prove conducive to farming.
Although farmers in the cutover region of northern Wisconsin were largely unsuccessful, agricultural production flourished throughout the rest of the state. To match the increasing scale and production levels of the state's agriculture, enterprising businessmen quickly established businesses that supplied tools and equipment to farmers. The agricultural machinery industry expanded across the southern portion of the state after the Civil War but remained strongest in the southeast where J.I. Case, Milwaukee Harvester, and Allis-Chalmers were located.
Wisconsin remains a leading agricultural state. One of the greatest changes in farming over the last few decades has been the general decline in family farming and the subsequent rise in corporate farming.