wheat cultivation | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Wheat cultivation

wheat cultivation | Wisconsin Historical Society
Dictionary of Wisconsin History.


Wheat was Wisconsin's first major agricultural crop. Most of the people who immigrated intended to become farmers, especially of wheat because of its low initial planting cost and relative high rate of return. The development of mechanical agricultural implements better suited to prairie conditions allowed wheat production to expand dramatically in the 1850s. Before, with draft animals in short supply and wooden plows that broke easily, farmers could only plant a small number of acres.  Wisconsin was producing the second highest wheat yield in the U.S. by 1860.  Over the next five years, Wisconsin farmers harvested over 100 million bushels, more than two-thirds of which were exported.

Wheat production peaked statewide in 1870 but signs of its decline had already been evident as early as the 1850s in some areas of the state. Three factors led to its decline: soil depletion, unsteady prices, and the railroads. Railroad development made eastern markets more accessible at the same time that it opened up more fertile lands west of Wisconsin, in Minnesota and the Dakotas. Wheat acreage declined after the Civil War, most rapidly in the southern, central, and eastern counties where corn, hay, oats, and other feed crops were substituted.  The growth of wheat farming had also created the need for a milling industry which was located primarily in major shipping areas.  The state also developed an agricultural implement industry to meet the needs of wheat farmers and to improve production.

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