Sustainable Farming Saved Wisconsin Agriculture

Badger View

Wisconsin transformed from the No. 1 wheat state in 1900 to the No. 1 dairy state by 1920.

Published on: February 4, 2014

Countless news releases cross my desk every month talking about sustainable farming practices and sustainable agriculture. Sustainability has become quite the buzz word during the past decade. Many people talk about it, but I'm not sure everyone understands what it is.

If you look the word up in the dictionary, you will find that sustainable means "able to be maintained." Sustainable agriculture is defined as "exploiting natural resources without destroying the ecological balance of an area."

Wheat producing state
That's fair enough, but when I think of sustainable agriculture, I first think of what agriculture was like in Wisconsin 100 years ago or more. For the most part, agriculture from 1860 through the early 1900s was not sustainable. I learned this from reading back volumes of issues of Wisconsin Agriculturist dating back to 1887. Did you know in 1900 Wisconsin was the No. 1 wheat producing state? Not Kansas, not South Dakota, Wisconsin.

Sustainable Farming Saved Wisconsin Agriculture
Sustainable Farming Saved Wisconsin Agriculture

Wheat is a crop that requires a lot of fertility and it saps the fertility out of the soil. Many Wisconsin farms grew wheat in the 1800s and early 1900s. A lot of farmers would grow wheat without rotating it with other crops. While most farms had a few chickens and a cow or two for milk, cream and butter for their own family's use, few Wisconsin farms were truly diversified before 1900. Many farmers would grow wheat year after year after year without fertilizing the soil and after a few years when the soil was depleted, they would move to another farm and buy or rent that farm and do the same thing.

Learning these facts about Wisconsin agriculture surprised me, but it explained why the Ingalls family in the Little House on the Prairie books and television show moved from farm to farm in Wisconsin, Minnesota and South Dakota.

There were farms in Wisconsin that were sustainable and diversified that dated as far back as the 1840s. This is evidenced by the families in Wisconsin who are the sixth and seventh generation of their family's to farm on the same land. Many of them have been recognized with Centennial Awards (100 years) and even Sesquicentennial Awards (150 years) through the Wisconsin State Fair, however, before 1900 these farms were the exception and not the rule.