Agriculture

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The growing of crops for human and animal consumption in the lands of the Minnesota River Basin is linked to favorable climatic conditions; soil fertility and inhabitant knowledge of production methods. The soils of the Minnesota River Basin are primarily glacial in origin and considered good to high in fertility in most areas. Human habitation in the Minnesota River Basin goes back some 10,000 years but it was not until 900 A.D. that formal agricultural plots were developed as an adjunct to hunting and gathering activities in the Oneota and later the Dakotah cultures. Squash, maize, beans, sunflowers, gourds and tabacco were planted in fields near permanent villages and in the river bottoms. Wild rice was planted in shallow water bodies for fall harvesting.

The farmers of European heritage who entered the Minnesota River Valley in large numbers after the treaties of 1851 converted woodlands, prairies, and wetlands to fenced fields producing primarily wheat, corn and oats. "King Wheat" dominated agriculture in the Minnesota River Basin and much of the state during the last half of the 19th century. Period droughts, low commodity prices, and grasshopper invasions all contributed to a "boom and bust" cycle for agriculture that continues to this day. The "Golden Years" for agriculture in the Minnesota River Basin was likely between 1910 and 1921 when both high yields of corn, small grains, and hay and high commodity prices occured. Cattle, hogs, and poultry were also found on these diversified family farms. Farm depression and drought brought the "bust" cycle to agriculture for the next 20 years or so. Increased demand for agricultural products following World War II and the application of new technology to farming brought profitability back to agriculture and a demand for more crop fields. Extensive drainage of wetlands took place as part of the new style of agriculture with hybrid seeds, pesticides, and fertilizers. Fertilizer use increased 600% between 1949 and 1969. By 1955, nearly all horses used in farm operations had been replaced by tractors.

Another "up and down" period occured for agriculture in the Basin from the early 1970s into the 1990s. High world demand for commodities led to overexpansion of fields, inflated land prices and huge crop supluses. Large hog and cattle feedlots emerged as a way to make agriculture profitable but raised questions about their impact on the environment. Conservation programs helped retire highly erodable farmland and land whose non agricultural use could help improve surface water quality. Another form of "new style" agriculture is under development with emphasis on low tillage, selective use of farm chemicals and astute business planning by farmer business persons. Change remains as the one constant for agriculture in the Minnesota River Basin.