Wheat production, rise and fall

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The production of wheat is nearly, if not as old as civilization itself. The production of this particular crop has been hailed as the most important to all of civilization, as it was the staple crop of the Fertile Crescent around 9600 BCE, and continues this trend into modern times. However, like any other major farmed grain, wheat experiences its ebbs and flows within the market place. Even Wisconsin wheat production is no exception to that rule. However, has Wisconsin experienced natural rises and falls in it wheat farming industry or are their other forces at work that motivate the production of wheat within the Great State of Wisconsin?

Wheat Production: The Rise, 1850s-1870s

The production of wheat in the State of Wisconsin essentially began with its induction into statehood in 1848. The production of wheat in particular was brought into the state due to the fact that the climate was ideal, the soil was fertile, and the immigrant farmers found wheat easiest to grow and maintain on a limited budget.[1] In fact, in the 1850's wheat agriculture and production had become quite lucrative and even acted as a medium of exchange with local citizens coining the phrase "as good as wheat,"[2] due to several good harvests and market prices in the 1850's. This was seen as a boom period for the young state, by 1857 it was believed that the land in cultivation had doubled that of 1850 and the land value had shot through the roof during this period.[3] This boom of wheat in the agriculture industry was clearly seen, as the per capita increased dramatically from 14.03 to 20.18 bushels during this time.[4] The wheat production would assist the development of the State of Wisconsin, for example between the years of 1850 and 1855 towns like Milwaukee (a major milling town) increased its population by over ten thousand residents, and produced the same effect from 1855 to 1860 while entire counties like Fond du Lac county doubled in its entire size.[5] Furthermore, land value (especially if its associated with wheat) dramatically increased, for example several plots of land in the Menasha area in 1855 sold for roughly 25 dollars per acre while the average price was around 8 dollars.[6] But this trend did not continue into the new decade of the 1860's, while it was true that the Wisconsin wheat harvest had been the largest raised in state history, the State lacked the capability of bringing the wheat to other markets either around the world or within the nation, thus clogging the western wheat markets and deprecating the value of wheat. In fact, wheat sales within one of the largest gain milling hubs within the State listed prices as low as 62 cents per bushel(rise and fall). While this seems to be a major fall in the wheat industry, Wisconsin wheat production is still at its height despite the depression that the particular market was suffering.[7] Coupled with poor wheat prices and poor crop yields due either to drought or infestation, the Wisconsin wheat market continued to suffer until 1865 after which, the State was able to again produce a large crop of wheat of good quality and was still able to sell it during the American Civil War while prices where high. By the time the 1870's rolled around, the wheat market had entered a full blown depression due to poor wheat yields due to drought, rust, and insects, and even when wheat prices where good in 1873 it cost farmers an arm and a leg to just bring his crop to market.[8] By 1879, wheat crops where back up to a good quality, but the overall production state wide was falling rapidly from 24 bushels per capita to almost 19 bushels per capita.[9] Large growths in other crop production to include tobacco, potatoes and feed for livestock and cattle were on the rise as farmers where moving away from an unreliable and inconsistent wheat industry.

Wheat Production: The Fall, 1880s-1890s

According to the Wisconsin Historical Atlas, wheat was the primary cash crop because it required little capital and labor for poor immigrant farmers to produce results.[10] While wheat is king between the 1850's and 1870's it was about to be overshadowed by the industry that Wisconsin is best known for in contemporary times, that being the dairy industry. While other factors like soil depletion due to consistently growing wheat occurs and helps usher wheat out as the main industry, the rise of dairy farming really puts the nail into the coffin. According to Apps, king wheat had lost its slip in Wisconsin for several main reasons to include nitrogen depleted soil due to the lack use and understanding of fertilizer, disease and insect infestation due to the continuous reliance on growing wheat, and the emergence of the railroad which allowed for more fertile wheat farming areas and markets in the west to compete with Wisconsin's wheat.[11] Due to these factors, Wisconsin farms looked else where to find a living as the wheat market had become inconsistent and the conclusion was to switch to a dairy industry state. Again according to Apps, the production of hay increased seven-fold, corn increased from 5.4 million bushels to 67 million bushels in a period 30 years after 1849. [12] This increase in feed for live stock is consistent with the rising dependence on dairy cattle and other livestock and a large reason why the acreage of wheat falls dramatically during the 1880's. Another minor reason why wheat falls out of style in Wisconsin is the rapid expansion of the brewing industry in which farmers switch from growing wheat to hops and barley with total numbers reaching 15 million bushels by the 1900's.[13] So the main reason why wheat, the original king of the agriculture industry in Wisconsin fall in the later parts of the 19th century is due to the lack of financial instability of the markets, the depletion of soil nutrients due to continuous wheat planting which affects the quality of the wheat harvest and frequent crop failures are the main reasons why wheat falls dramatically in the 1880's and the rise of both dairy farming and the brewing industry being the reasons why wheat production has never picked back up during the turn of the either the 20th or 21st century.

References

  1. Wisconsin's Past and Present: a Historical Atlas. (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998), 42.
  2. John,Thompson. The Rise and Decline of the Wheat Growing Industry in Wisconsin. (Madison, WI, 1909),25.
  3. John,Thompson. The Rise and Decline of the Wheat Growing Industry in Wisconsin. (Madison, WI, 1909),44
  4. John,Thompson. The Rise and Decline of the Wheat Growing Industry in Wisconsin. (Madison, WI, 1909),44
  5. John,Thompson. The Rise and Decline of the Wheat Growing Industry in Wisconsin. (Madison, WI, 1909),45
  6. John,Thompson. The Rise and Decline of the Wheat Growing Industry in Wisconsin. (Madison, WI, 1909),44
  7. John,Thompson. The Rise and Decline of the Wheat Growing Industry in Wisconsin. (Madison, WI, 1909),57
  8. John,Thompson. The Rise and Decline of the Wheat Growing Industry in Wisconsin. (Madison, WI, 1909),72
  9. John,Thompson. The Rise and Decline of the Wheat Growing Industry in Wisconsin. (Madison, WI, 1909),78
  10. Wisconsin's Past and Present: a Historical Atlas. (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998), 42.
  11. Jerold, Apps.Wisconsin agriculture: A History. (Madison, WI, Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2015),50.
  12. Jerold, Apps.Wisconsin agriculture: A History. (Madison, WI, Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2015),51.
  13. Jerold, Apps.Wisconsin agriculture: A History. (Madison, WI, Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2015),53.

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