Before Dairy Ruled, Wheat Reigned In Wisconsin

University Place: 19th Century Transition Helped Define State's Agricultural Landscape
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PJ Nelson (CC BY-SA 2.0)

While Wisconsin is known as "America's Dairyland," this nickname would not have accurately depicted the state during its first 50 years. In fact, the early history of Wisconsin agriculture is dominated by other crops – most notably, wheat – that preceded the contemporary dairy industry.

In order to better understand the story of Wisconsin's agriculture, it's also important to look at the history of the state itself. Author Jerry Apps, a onetime University of Wisconsin-Extension agricultural agent and UW-Madison professor emeritus, discussed the roots of agriculture in the state in an Oct. 23, 2015 presentation at the Wisconsin Book Festival. Apps' presentation, recorded for Wisconsin Public Television's University Place, was based on his 2015 book, Wisconsin Agriculture: A History, explored Wisconsin's agricultural history as influenced through factors like climate, geography and settlement patterns.

Dating back to the last glaciation some 10,000 years ago, which left behind a landscape of lakes, rivers and rich soil, Wisconsin has been a fertile location for many types of agriculture. The Native American peoples who first settled the region utilized the land for this purpose, growing crops like maize, beans and squash.

In the early and mid-1800s, immigrants began to settle and begin farming in the state. First came "Yankees" from New England and upstate New York, followed by Germans and Norwegians, and in turn, Belgians, Irish, Poles and Scots. The focus of farmers in the state's early decades was on growing wheat. In 1860, Wisconsin was the second largest state for wheat production in the United States. By 1870, however, wheat cultivation began to fail, compelling farmers to turn to other crops like hops, tobacco, potatoes and hemp.

A main reason the dairy industry didn't take off until the late 1800s was because it was considered "women's work," while growing wheat and other field crops was thought more appropriate for men. Women were expected to milk and feed cows, as well as make butter and cheese. That assumption changed in the 1880s when William Dempster Hoard, founder of the national Hoard's Dairyman magazine and the state's governor from 1889-1891, encouraged men to rethink their focus, calling "king wheat" a dying industry and "queen cow" an up-and-coming opportunity. Largely due to Hoard's encouragement, entrepreneurs began building cheese factories around the state because the its road system was not suitable to transport milk to major markets.

Several inventions were particularly important in the development of Wisconsin's dairy industry. The tower silo, for example, allowed for airtight storage of cattle feed, or silage, in the winter. Initially, farmers were unaccepting of the idea, but now Wisconsin is one of the predominant silage producing states. Babcock butterfat testers, which separate fat from milk and measure it, was also an early and vital invention in the state. Prior to their invention and widespread use, farmers oftentimes added water to their milk.

Key facts

  • In 1851, the Milwaukee Sentinel published the "Emigrants Handbook," which aimed to attract settlers to the state and was extremely effective.

  • The University of Wisconsin was influential in developing the state's dairy industry. Its College of Agriculture was established in 1889, its Extension service in 1908 and the first county-based agriculture agent started working in 1912. According to Apps, early educational efforts led by UW was one of the best examples of the Wisconsin Idea in action. (Disclosure: The University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension is a partner of WisContext.)

  • The University of Wisconsin Dairy Barn was built in 1898 for $16,000. UW sent an agricultural engineer to France to find an example of what a dairy barn should look like, which is why the structure has a French-style pointed top on its attached silo. The University planned to remove the building in 1951, but students urged officials to reconsider. They were successful and the building is still used today.

  • World War II brought major developments in Wisconsin's agriculture industry, including the development of aluminum, which led to irrigation systems and technology, widespread distribution of electricity, which allowed for milking machines, and greater use of tractors. The era also saw broad changes in rural communities, including the consolidation of country schools, decline of country churches and decline of local hardware stores and lumber yards. These changes led to farms becoming larger in size and fewer in number.

  • In addition to dairy, Wisconsin is also a major producer of canned vegetables, ginseng, cranberries, cherries and maple syrup. Additionally, farmers are increasingly growing grapes to support new wineries in the state.

  • Apps gave a similar speech titled, "A Brief Look at Wisconsin's Agricultural History," on April 23, 2010, which was also recorded for Wisconsin Public Television's University Place.

Key quotes

  • On Wisconsin being a large producer of wheat in the mid-1800s: "You fly over southern Wisconsin and you see all those little ponds, little mill ponds, and that's because of our wheat industry, because we, farmers and businessmen, found it more profitable to grind the wheat into flour rather than ship to reap kernels. So, there was a lot of flour made in Wisconsin. And each one of those little mill ponds provided water power for a mill."

  • On the dairy industry beginning with women: "It took the better part of 30 years for Wisconsin farmers, men especially, to work their minds around the idea that it was appropriate for men to have something to do with cattle. It was a gender issue. I think I’m probably the first person, at least I haven't seen anybody else talk about it as a gender issue, but it was that, in my judgment. It just took a while for men to wrap their minds around it."

  • On the importance of silos in the dairy industry: "As crazy as it sounds, the history of silos and the history of silage is a very important part of Wisconsin's agricultural history because silage, corn silage in the early days, allowed us to have an alternative feed in the wintertime. And, as Hoard said to all of his neighbors and the Germans and all the rest of them, 'If you're going to dairy cattle milk in the wintertime, you're going to have to feed them.'"

  • On the attraction of Wisconsin's agricultural landscape: "The number one reason was the opportunity to see farms, to see alfalfa growing, to see farm buildings, to see the beauty that is part of our agriculture. I've never forgotten that. That's very important. We always think of the economics of agriculture, and that's important. But we should also think there's an aesthetic to agriculture. There's an inherent beauty to agriculture."

  • On researching his 2015 book, Wisconsin Agriculture: A History: "When I began working on this project, I really discovered that it would probably take 10 volumes to write the history of Wisconsin agriculture. And I also, though, was encouraged that in 1922 a one-volume history was written, and that person at that time indicated that there are more pages to be written, and I would say the same thing today. There are more pages to be written about Wisconsin's agricultural history."
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