About the Rise of Agriculture in Michigan

Early farmers grew crops primarily for their own use partly because transportation was inadequate and slow and good markets for their crops were far away. The quality of seeds and livestock was low and farming methods were still primitive. Farmers in Michigan grew only crops for their own and local use.

The opening of the Erie Canal opened up the growing eastern markets to farmers in Michigan for their agricultural products. Between 1825 and 1835, over 200,000 settlers came to Michigan to start farming in the wilderness lands. The initial small fields laboriously cleared of timber gradually grew to large farms fenced by split rail or stump fences. The forests that had covered the land were replaced by farms or cutover lands as they were harvested for their lumber. In the period between 1860 and 1900 more farms were started on the cut-over lands in the northern part of the state. There the lumbering industries provided the farmers with a local market for their crops and employment during the wintertime. But farming north of Bay City was hindered because of the poorer soil, in most areas, and the colder climate. Since 1920, hundreds of these farms have been abandoned. Much of this land is now in state and national forests.

This newer generation of settlers in Michigan brought better grades of seed and stock that had been developed in the East. The first farmers in Michigan kept a few cows, horses, hogs, and chickens and raised a variety of crops to supply the needs of their families and farm animals. Any extra crops were sold to get money to purchase the items they needed. Farmers with an entrepreneurial spirit began raising cash crops as soon as they could. Wheat was one of the first cash crops raised because it grew well on the land in southern Michigan. The fact that it didn't spoil meant that it and could be sent to markets on the Erie Canal, or the new railroads. Once it reached the East coast, it could even be shipped to markets in Europe. Michigan was a leading wheat producer for some years and also produced potatoes, cherries, sugar beets, celery, beans, and cucumbers.

The invention of the Bessemer steel making process (1830) made steel inexpensive and quite plentiful. Steel replaced common tools made of wood or iron like flails, pitchforks, rakes and harrows. The superior strength and sharpness of the steel implements made planting, hoeing, harvesting the grain and threshing it go much quicker. The centuries-old sickle was replaced by the scythe, which was replaced by mowing machines pulled by a team of horses, were technological innovations that cut the grain much faster than human hands. Threshing machines, initially powered by horses turning a sweep, and later powered by steam, were used to thresh the grain. Other new technologies made it possible for the farmer to produce more, faster and improve his profitability. Until 1925, the primary source of power on the farm was the draft horse. In 1917 there were around 680,000 horses in Michigan. Once the gasoline engine was used to power farm equipment, the draft horse all but became extinct. Large-scale crop production enabled farmers to ship surpluses to industrialized cities where people worked in factories that produced needed products like steel tools and woven fabrics.

Engine powered farm equipment enabled the farmer to do in a few minutes what a farmer did in a whole day. Powered pumps delivered water for irrigation, provided cooling for dairy products, and heat in barns for animals. In 1920 there were 206,960 farms in Michigan and over 19 million acres in farmland. In 1980 there were about 78,000 farms that had about 11,700,000 acres. Several factors can be attributed to the decline of farming in Michigan. Poor soil, the development of cities and industries that paid steady and higher wages, and the uncertain climate that makes farming a gamble each and every year. The average farm had 98 acres in 1910 and by 1980 the average farm had 150 acres. There were fewer farmers with larger farms, because in farming, profitability often relies on size.

Michigan farmers grow a wide variety of crops because of the varied climate and soil conditions. In terms of dollar sales, dairy products account for about 27% of the total farm income. Wheat represents 17% and beef cattle 13.5%.

Most Michigan wheat is winter wheat which means it is planted in the fall, survives the winter, and is ready to be cut the next summer. Oats, barley and rye are three other grains grown here. Oats is a softer grain that is fed to horses because it is easier for them to eat than wheat. More oats were grown in earlier times when horsepower was used on farms and cities. Corn is another of Michigan's grain crops. You will most likely see corn growing in the southern Lower Peninsula. This part of Michigan is on the northern edge of what is known as the corn belt. This belt is the area where most of America's corn is grown, and it reaches from Ohio across Iowa. Humans eat sweet corn, but another kind is field corn that is fed to cattle, chickens and pigs. Most of Michigan corn is the field corn variety. Corn stalks are not wasted, but are cut up and made into silage for cattle feed too. Michigan farmers also grow some popcorn. Soybeans is a crop used as stock feed to extract soybean oil used in cooking and in several industrial products including plastics. Lenawee and Monroe counties are the leading soybean growers.

Along the western coast of Lake Michigan in the Lower Peninsula, the climate is very good for raising certain fruits. Plums, Peaches, apples, grapes and cherries are specialties of this part of the state. The Traverse City region is a real cherry grower. Nearly 3/4th of all the tart cherries grown in the United States come from Michigan. Well over 100,000 tons are produced each year.

Grapes are also grown in Michigan and are made into juice, jam, jelly and into wine. Throughout the state, strawberries, blueberries and apples are grown. Michigan is one of the top three apple growing states. So much fruit is grown in the southwestern part of the state that the largest non-citrus fruit market in the United States is located in Benton Harbor. Many canneries are located in the fruit producing areas of the state.

Beef cattle is another important part of Michigan's agricultural business. In 1980 there were about 1,500, 000 cattle on Michigan farms, but that varied according to the market price for beef. When meat prices are high, it is usually because there is a low supply of cattle, so farmers increase their stock. When prices drop, cattle is sold off. This is, of course, the principle of supply and demand.

Pigs (hogs), sheep, and poultry are some other animals often seen on farms, though they are not usually a farmer's main income. Sheep give us wool as well as meat (mutton). Included in poultry are turkeys, ducks and geese that are sold for their meat and kept for the production of their eggs. Over a billion eggs are produced in Michigan each year.

Michigan farmers also grow vegetables on their farms. More cucumbers are grown in Michigan than any other state. Farmers grow over 450 million pounds of beans each year. Other Michigan vegetable crops include asparagus, celery, carrots, tomatoes, potatoes (especially in the western part of the Upper Peninsula), red beets, cabbage, leaf lettuce, peas, squash, pumpkins and melons. The sugar beet is an excellent crop for Michigan farmers who produce 1.5 million tons of sugar from their beets each year. And the products derived from the maple tree, maple sugar and maple syrup, are other important Michigan specialty.

It's important to remember that three factors control what agricultural products are produced where. Climate, including rainfall, temperature, length of growing season make many product unsuitable to certain regions. The quality and type of the soil will determine the compatibility of certain crops. Finally the nearness to consumer markets can effect the profit potential of certain products. Michigan was blessed with an unusual variety of soil types, climate conditions and excellent methods of transportation, providing great opportunities for experimentation and success.

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